After Eden: Norway's Tragedy Spotlights Europe's Far Right

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

A man sitting in an Oslo café on July 27, 2011, reads a newspaper report featuring a photo of Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect of Norway's twin terror attacks

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The Emperors' New Clothes
Immigration has traditionally seen the most obvious intersections between far-right agitation and the overheated rhetoric of moderate politicians on the stump. A more recent fashion is to denigrate multiculturalism, the idea that "different cultures [can] live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream." That was British Prime Minister David Cameron in a Feb. 5 speech, coincidentally the day the EDL marched in Luton. The different cultures Cameron identified were Islam and "modern Western." Three months earlier, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel had expressed the view that multiculturalism "has failed, utterly failed."

Mark Rutte of the Dutch conservative party Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, which heads a minority government and relies on the support of Wilders' PVV to pass legislation, chimed in with a denunciation of multiculturalism at a meeting of the Foreign Press Association of the Netherlands in June. "The idea that you can have all these different cultures next to each other and you do not have to take into account at all the culture of the county you are coming to doesn't work," he said. "My brother-in-law lives in Los Angeles and he always asks me, 'Why do you have this debate on immigration in the Netherlands?' He has 70% Hispanics living around him. 'We are very clear in America. You come to America, these are the laws, you earn your own money, your children go to school, you don't beat your wife, you live up to the law. And if not, you leave. And if you do, you can achieve everything except become President because then you have to be born in America.'"

Rutte's casual implication that sending kids to school and abjuring spousal abuse may not be norms that immigrants would recognize illustrates how easily a mainstream politician can accidentally reinforce the messages of the far right. In the push for votes, populism often overrides more nuanced messaging. But populism doesn't always pay off for parties of the center. President Sarkozy, who has presided over the banning of the burqa, launched a controversial debate over national identity and ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma gypsy immigrants from France, might be expected to have stolen much of the National Front's thunder, but Le Pen's buoyant popularity suggests the formula isn't so straightforward.

There may be a cheering reason for that. Despite polls that show concerns over immigration at an all-time high in Europe, the majority of indigenous Europeans happily co-exist with more recent arrivals, crediting them with enriching their cultures, not swamping them. But another factor is in play too. The calls to action by the far right, while often riddled with nonsense and fiction, are unambiguous. The political mainstream prevaricates, muddles and contradicts itself. No wonder we don't always listen.

More to Fear than Fear Itself
In the aftermath of Breivik's murderous spree, the Norwegian intelligence services drew criticism for having devoted too many resources to protecting the country aga Islamic fundamentalists and too little to monitoring other groups. Until the bloody events of July 22, statistics suggested they were right to treat the danger from the far right as marginal. The European Union's 2011 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, published before the attacks and based on information from the E.U. and non-E.U. countries, including Norway, ascribes none of the 249 failed, foiled and completed attacks in nine European countries last year to the far right and states that "the threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane."

It's hardly surprising that counterterrorist chiefs were looking elsewhere as Breivik amassed his arsenal and if, as the initial investigation suggests, he acted alone, this would have made him harder still to spot. Yet the report wouldn't appear to justify the focus on jihadism either, with Islamic fundamentalism accounting for just three of the planned or completed attacks logged in 2010. The majority were launched in the name of separatist movements.

Nobody would argue that the authorities in Norway or the rest of the Western world should relax their vigilance toward jihadists. The key questions all relate to how to strike an appropriate balance. "We are not naive," says Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. "We understand that Norway is a part of a world that is experiencing more violence and terrorism than we have before. But the challenge for Norway is to reconcile the need for security with our desire to be an open society, a society where politicians are accessible and close to the people."

To that list, he may add "consistent" and "honest." Until mainstream politicians learn to resist the temptation to play politics with incendiary issues and until societies acknowledge their own dysfunctions instead of pinning the blame on alien cultures, the risk of violence will persist. It may not always look like terrorism. It may arrive in the shape of a lone wolf. Dan Hodges, of the antifascist organization Searchlight, cites Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bomb attack on Oklahoma City and David Copeland's 1999 nail-bombing campaign against London's black, Bangladeshi and gay communities as examples of killings triggered by a wider culture of anger and prejudice.

"In relation to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, a strong case has been made that we should not just look at those who directly perpetrate the attacks, but also look at the broader support networks, and even go beyond that to the broader cultural aspects and elements of the wider debate on multiculturalism, on immigration, on foreign policy to see how they lead to radicalization," says Hodges. "That investigation and examination and interrogation and debate has to be conducted on both sides, from the left of the political spectrum and the right of the political spectrum. And there will be elements of that debate that everybody finds uncomfortable, but it's something that mainstream politicians and mainstream authorities have to engage in." Eden may be lost but a better world is there for the taking.

With reporting by William Boston / Oslo; William Lee Adams and Sonia van Gilder Cooke / London; Lauren Comiteau / Amsterdam; Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels; Bruce Crumley / Paris; Stephan Faris / Rome; Tristana Moore / Berlin

Mayer is London bureau chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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