On 22 July, a car bomb exploded in the executive government quarter of Norway. Eight people lost their lives and many more were injured. Two hours later, the bomber arrived at the small island of Utøya, the site for the annual summer camp of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth organization. He tricked everyone to gather around by wearing a police uniform before opening fire. During 90 minutes, he walked the island of Utøya, murdering 70 people, most of them teenagers, shooting them one by one as they desperately tried to escape the island or hide.
The mass murderer was Anders Behring Breivik. In a 1500 page manifesto, he reveals himself as a delusional xenophobe obsessed with the idea that the Muslims are taking over Europe.
Enough time has passed since the massacre at Utøya for the initial shock to abate, but I am still struggling to understand Anders Behring Breivik. In what kind of putrid soil does such wicked weed grow? Whatever the cause is, no one wakes up a monster. It took Breivik nine years before he was ready to look a child in the face and press the trigger. Over those nine years, Breivik must have gradually become more and more twisted, but is there a pervasive atmosphere required for that kind of change to take place. My guess is that it requires a good deal of ignorance.
Let me take a step back from the atrocity of Breivik. He made me think of ignorance, but the rest of this post will deal with the kind of ignorance we face in our normal lives. Every-day ignorance can be fought, and perhaps if someone had done so nine years ago, the Norway massacre would never have happened.
Whenever I travel, especially if I visit a culture far removed from my own, I am always struck by how the similarities between people far outweigh the differences. This is seldom featured in our news or our passive collective ‘wisdom’. Misconceptions of what people are like seem to grow exponentially with how far away they live. Like a terrible game of Chinese whispers, the more individuals that pass along information about a culture before it reaches our ears, the more distorted it becomes.
I never experienced this more than when I went to Iran. I had packed my bag full of what I was certain was good healthy truths, and perhaps I was missing an adapter but none of them worked when I arrived. I had expected a tough social climate where I would need to keep both my wits and my guard about me. Instead, I was greeted by the most warm, kind and generous people I have ever met. The most problematic issue of mine was figuring out how to deal with the Iranian women who shamelessly flirted with me. Generally accepted ‘facts’ about Iranian women had not prepared me for that little surprise.
My travel in Iran is not an isolated example of how, through travel, my ignorance was replaced by experience. Similar things happened when I travelled through Russia, Israel, Bolivia, Cuba, the United States of America and the United Kingdoms of a rainy island. (Which, as it turns out, isn’t that rainy after all.)
I found that I could help others shake their preconceptions too, just by getting to know me. A surprisingly common comment from my straight friends goes like this: “You know, I used to be a bit homophobic, but after meeting you, I guess you are not that different from us after all. Want a beer?” (To which I obviously respond, “No, but I’d love a cosmopolitan.”)
A Nomadic Ambassador?
My reason for becoming a nomad was to learn what it is like to live in different places around the world, not just skim the surface like a skipping stone. If tourist travel with its limited schedule can dispel ignorance and replace it with experience, imagine then what nomadic travel can do.
What would normally be an acquaintance can become a friend, and it is through friends that we may truly get to know another culture. Just as I learn from those I meet, I hope they may learn something about my own culture as well as the ones I have visited on my journeys. And although nothing beats first-hand experience, perhaps reading this blog may give you, dear reader, new insights as well.
I do not delude myself into thinking that I can persuade a monster such as Breivik to love his perceived enemies. Nevertheless, I can help foster understanding and tolerance in the ones I meet, and maybe – just maybe – that can help someone avoid walking down that dark lonely corridor towards xenophobia and hatred.
“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” — Socrates