Two weeks after the fatal terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, in London, and one day after another failed attack, a student, Jean Charles de Menezes, was in the London Underground when plainclothes police officers gave chase and shot him seven times in the head.
Initial eyewitness reports said he was wearing a suspiciously large puffa jacket on a hot day and had vaulted the barriers and run when asked to stop. Anthony Larkin, who was on the train, said he saw “this guy who appeared to have a bomb belt and wires coming out.” Mark Whitby, who was also at the station, thought he saw a Pakistani terrorist being chased and gunned down by plainclothes policemen. Less than a month later, Whitby said, “I now believe that I could have been looking at the surveillance officer” being thrown out of the way as Menezes was being killed.
The Pakistani turned out to be a Brazilian. Security cameras showed he was wearing a light denim jacket and clearly in no rush as he picked up a free paper and swiped his metrocard.
“The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
When some Western commentators see a terrorist attack they are apparently far more comfortable with what they believe than what they know.
So it was on Friday when news emerged of the appalling attacks in Norway that have left an estimated seventy-six dead and a nation traumatized. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun in Britain (the bestselling daily newspaper) ran with the headline “Al Qaeda massacre: Norway’s 9/11.” The Weekly Standard insisted: “We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.” Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post then claimed: “This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists.”
In just a few hours an entire conceptual framework had been erected—though hardly from scratch—to discuss the problem of Muslims in particular and non-white immigration in Europe in general and the existential threat these problems pose to civilization as we know it.
Then came the fact that the terrorist was actually a white, Christian extremist and a neo-Nazi, Anders Breivik, raging against Islam and multiculturalism. Unlike Muslims in the wake of Islamist attacks, Christians weren’t called upon to insist upon their moderation. No one argued that white people had to get with the Enlightenment project. But the bombings—and the presumptions about who was responsible—suggest that the true threat to European democracy is not Islam or Muslims but, once again, fascism and racists.