Yesterday’s New York Times carried a deadline report of the killing just outside of Oslo, Norway, of “at least 80 people” by a lone gunman who walked into a youth political camp and began shooting. The story carried the information high up that police had arrested a 32-year-old Norwegian man, reportedly a right-wing extremist, as the only suspect in the massacre. You can read the story here. (I’ve permalinked it so as to preserve more or less the original version.)
The story was a group effort by several reporters (as is typical for deadline pieces about shocking disasters) and was for the most part soberly factual. And yet, strangely, the last seven paragraphs managed to twist the incident into a peculiar and unsupported vein of speculation: the actions of this lone Norwegian gunman, the Times asserted, were somehow proof that Al Qaeda and similar groups were either now, or would be soon, upping the scale of their attacks on Western countries. Here are the key paragraphs that carried this assertion:
Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda’s brutality and multiple attacks.
“If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington. “One lesson I take away from this is that attacks, especially in the West, are going to move to automatic weapons.”
How could an otherwise straightforward news story, reported and carried by one of the most respected news organizations in the U.S., deviate into an ugly fantasy that made no sense in the context of the facts? And which might strike some observers as likely to stir up anti-Islamic prejudice without reason? These questions become especially pertinent—indeed, ironic— in light of the fact that today’s story in the Times carries further reports that the killer was not just right-wing, but “a gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.”