July 25, 2011
The emerging profile of Anders Behring Breivik is not what was first expected. On Friday, President Obama and the mainstream media immediately jumped on the murder of 92 people in Norway to affirm the war on terror’s importance. Putting aside the establishment’s tendency to cite both failures and presumed successes, both acts of mass violence that came to fruition and ones that were preempted, as vindication of the war on terror, we should note that the administration was politicizing an atrocity in the only way that it is ever considered appropriate: The state can respectably pat its soldiers and enforcers on the back for their waging wars and bashing heads; all other political points made in the light of mass death are considered gauche.
Yet as it turns out, the alleged murderer is not the Islamist that so many assumed. He was, instead, an anti-Islamist of the very sort that has become commonplace in the last decade. He is a self-described Christian and nationalist worried that Muslims will overtake the West. He enjoyed the same neoconservative blogs read by millions of Americans. Despite this, his act continues to be spun as a reason to worry about al Qaeda’s supposed influence in inspiring acts of mass violence, rather than as a warning about the threat of anti-Islamism.
And that threat is real. Many Americans think that Muslims should be outright prohibited from building mosques in the United States. At least one Republican presidential candidate has articulated this position unambiguously. Conservatives ludicrously warn that Muslims will impose Sharia law through the U.S. court system, abolishing American liberty. Anyone who reads conservative message boards can sense the possibility that we are one dirty bomb away from seeing our Muslim neighbors rounded up and sent to camps. The hundreds seized without due process and detained for months after 9/11 are forgotten, but their story reminds us of how fragile liberty and tolerance can be.
Just because Breivik has much in common with neocons and theocons, however, does not validate the left’s attempt to turn this into another excuse for cracking down on rightwing thought crime. The center left always sees such incidents as a pretext for institutional resolve against “rightwing extremism” – Timothy McVeigh and James von Brunn come to mind. Liberals are correct when they identify the double standard of labeling Breivik an “extremist” and bin Laden a “terrorist.” They are being logically consistent when they say such “extremism” should be treated like any other terrorism. But the very scary thing about this tragedy is that the killer is not an “extremist” at all, at least not ideologically. He is not anti-government, either, despite what many good-government liberals imply. He loves Winston Churchill, like most neocons and liberals. He’s very pro-Israel. His views on domestic and foreign policy and the supposed clash between Islam and the West are all too usual in Europe and the United States.
Anti-Muslim fear is a problem in America, but it is not that disposition alone that should most concern us, and we must be careful in addressing such fear. It is everywhere and usually no direct threat to anyone, certainly no crime in itself. When Juan Williams lost his job at NPR for saying that he felt a little uncomfortable flying on airplanes with Muslims – a fact that he disclosed candidly with humility toward those he felt ashamed of fearing – his purge was most regrettable, for it only shut down discussion and guaranteed that civilized contemplation of these complicated issues would be unwelcome in that major media venue. It also emboldened conservatives in their anti-Muslim sentiment.
The problem is not just fear of Muslims, but rather hateful, violent fear. Even such feelings, however, and even the most dehumanizing of thoughts, cannot be ameliorated by the very political system that encourages conflict and violence. Any attempt to turn the Utoya and Oslo tragedy into a rationale for an anti-rightwing witch-hunt would be misguided and counterproductive – especially coming from the very institution, the federal government, that is more responsible for antagonism toward Muslims than any other actor on the planet.
Indeed, even neoconservatives should be protected from government thought control, as should have the communists during the Cold War, despite both groups having very dangerous views when put into practice. It is not the thoughts but the deeds that are criminal. Mere discontent with Muslims is not the same as banning their mosques or restricting their liberties. As for Breivik, his beliefs are poisonous; infinitely worse was his acting on them to commit murder on a mass scale.
And this is where the real cognitive inconsistency comes in. Everyone knows that Breivik’s actions were unjustifiable. Everyone knows the same about those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. But what is not as universally understood is that mass murder is unjustifiable even when conducted by executive order and carried out by men wearing uniforms.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
If not for the “terrorists” of both the Muslim and anti-Muslim variety, the war on terrorism would not be easily sustained. The relationship is mutual, as the armed conflicts incite the resentment and blowback that are in turn pointed to as the reason to continue the wars. At any rate, the war on terror itself is nothing but one act of terrorism after another, day after day. Together, Bush and Obama have probably piled up ten thousand times as many corpses as did Breivik. A week of pure terror for Oslo, London, or Manhattan resembles an average week for Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq, thanks to the United States’s wars of liberation. Norway, too, having dropped hundreds of bombs in Obama’s NATO war on Libya, is a belligerent junior partner in what many see as a U.S.-Israeli-U.K. crusade against the Muslim world.
Sometimes the government’s wars kill thousands whose lives are disregarded as “collateral damage,” since the deaths were only a side effect of the main purpose of the war. This argument is weak, since the deaths are completely predictable. Moreover, many modern actions of the U.S. government involve deliberate, calculated cruelty and killing. The sanctions on Iraq throughout the 1990s directly targeted the most vulnerable segments of the Iraqi population. Misery and death were purposefully inflicted on them by the hundreds of thousands, in the hopes of prompting regime change. If this isn’t terrorism, then there is no such thing.
A terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment has said that Breivik’s operation “seems to be an attempt to mirror Al Qaeda, exactly in reverse.” Yet this description just as well fits the foreign policy of the U.S. and its satellites: Altering geopolitical realities by treating men, women, and children as disposable pawns to be targeted and liquidated. Killing people in large numbers for diplomatic reasons is the very essence of modern war. Do it without the right paperwork, and it’s terrorism.
Breivik’s action separates him from the millions of bigots calling for total war but not performing it. If we look at Breivik’s crimes as a problem of ideology and not only one of action then we are stuck with an uncomfortable truth: Engaging in mass violence that will inevitably kill innocent people is always wrong, and yet it is not only on the fringes of nationalist politics or on radical Islamist websites that we see endorsements of slaughtering dozens, hundreds, thousands or even more. The majority finds it defensible, even honorable and righteous, to do what Breivik did, so long as the civilian deaths are “collateral” or the result of bombings and sanctions initiated by the president – and, for those who are really old fashioned or progressive, ratified by Congress or the United Nations, respectively. The greatest trouble with neoconservatism, neoliberalism, and most other statist ideologies is that they favor mass murder. It does not matter, morally, what we call it. It makes no difference who arms the bombs and who fires the weapons, whether the hatred of the enemy is instilled at boot camp or gleaned from the blogosphere.
Many of Breivik’s targets were pro-Palestinian, likely eliciting his special animus for daring to side with the cultural enemy. When a fanatic takes up arms in the delusion that he is part of the war effort, we must remember that his actions are not materially much different from those of some of the most revered warriors and leaders of history. Perhaps he is not as deluded as those who try to differentiate his freelance violence from the formal violence celebrated in parades and on national holidays.
Of course I will be accused of the great crime of “moral equivalence” – the sin of saying that deliberately killing innocent people is always immoral, no matter who does it or for what reason. So be it. In this case it will be harder for the charge to stick, for all the usual blather that typically accompanies it – “they hate us for our freedom,” “they want to wipe Israel off the Earth,” “their religion commands them to kill us all” – is the same kind of hysterical lunacy indulged in by Anders Behring Breivik before he put his ideology of hateful collectivism into action.