Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Norway terrorist attacks, political violence and the politics of fear

By titling this post as being about political violence, I don't minimize the role religion may have played in the killings to which Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik has confessed. Extremist Christian and Jewish hatred of Muslims clearly played a role in his ideology. But his act was very much a political act, aimed at the ruling social-democratic party of Norway.

What we need in response to terrorist acts like Breivik's is realism more than fear. Juan Cole, in an otherwise thoughtful column on Breivik and far-right terrorism (When Extremism Learns to Blow things Up Informed Comment 07/24/2011) writes:

But when you hear people talking about lumping all these issues together; when you hear them obliterating distinctions and using black-and-white rhetoric; when you hear them talk of existential threats, and above all when you see that they are convinced that small movements that they hate are likely to have an immediate and revolutionary impact, then you should be afraid, be very afraid. That is when extremism learns to hate, and turns to violence. [my emphasis]
That's not good advice: it's one thing to understand the real danger of far-right violence; but the reaction shouldn't be based on "be afraid, be very afraid." Cole himself even make that point in a following paragraph:

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous billionaires, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers prominent among them, have honed their propaganda skills in the media and public life. The promotion of hate, panic, and fear, especially if it is tied to specific political, ethnic and religious groups, always risks violence. [my emphasis]
But he goes for the lets-all-look-at-ourselves approach in his concluding sentence, "The real message of Breivik is that we should all take a deep breath and step back from the precipice."

If this were the late Weimar Republic and the political parties had to have effective combat wings to survive, then advice like that might be appropriate. But at least in the US, there is currently no significant political violence coming from "the left." But, as Dave Neiwert and others have documented, during the last three years we have had repeated instances of overtly political violence coming from people acting on radical-right notions. Fortunately, we've had nothing on the Breivik scale since the Oklahoma City attack of April 19, 1995.

In this case, it's important to remember that far-right groups operate within in a particular context. I've seen a bit of hair-splitting by writers trying to say that of course those who only advocate hate should not be equated with those who commit murder.

But what's good about Cole's column is that he focuses on the particular combination of qualities of political demagoguery that lead to violence. This silly compulsion to equate "both sides" is just that, silly. It comes from a particular social and political milieu. The milieu of far-right political violence (with which the US has a serious problem) and that of leftwing political violence (which currently is effectively non-existent in the US) are very different. A thug like Scott Roeder, the antiabortion zealot who murdered Dr. George Tiller in his church in 2009, is not going to listen to what a liberal might have to say. Only if other antiabortion activists made it clear to him that they thought that murdering health providers was wrong, a sin, and a thoroughly un-Christian way to oppose abortion would be likely to have some effect on him.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, writes in Lessons drawn from the blonde bomber Ajazeera English 07/26/2011 has some good advice, and it's not "be afraid, be very afraid":

The only thing worse than failing to anticipate right-wing terrorists like Breivik because of short-sighted assumptions is failing to do so again, now that we've witnessed what they are capable of. Western nations must take this opportunity to reflect on the attacks in Norway and ask what is being done to prevent this from happening again.

First, there needs to be a serious rethinking about the Islamist boogeyman and a reevaluation of the share of security and intelligence resources dedicated exclusively to it.

Second, Breivik's attacks should put to rest the idea that complex networks or cells are necessary to pull off massive and devastating attacks. [This comment was probably premature; we don't know what kind of network he may have had. - Bruce]

Third, Breivik's ethnic background and the fact that he knew it would help him "escape the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent" should put to rest any discussion about racial profiling as an effective or efficient security measure.

Fourth, serious attention must be paid to the radicalisers on the right and the Islamophobes who preach a dichotomous worldview. Explicit calls to violence are clearly not necessary to inspire violence against civilians, and thus right-wing chat forums should receive every bit as much scrutiny from terror analysts as so-called jihadi web sites.

The lives of the victims of the tragedy in Norway are lost forever, but we mustn't let their blood be spilt in vain. Instead, we must adjust our assumptions and policies about terrorism and Islamophobia at this critical moment.

Breivik wanted to send a "wake-up" call. Let's make sure we're never asleep when Islamophobia or right-wing terrorism tries to shake our societies again.
I'll add one reservation that I suppose seems "quaint" in these days of massive NSA data sweeps. But there should be some legitimate law-enforcement reason to monitor websites. There are privacy concerns. Yes, I'm old-fashioned that way. And wading through mountains of cyberjunk rantings from grumpy rightwingers could waste an enormous amount of time that law-enforcement could be devoting to something more useful.

Having anti-terrorism personnel spending their time reading some old fool like Chuckie fantasizing online about various forms of violence and children being dismembered is unlikely to tell them more than that Chuckie is a weird old has-been country singer still trying to market records to elderly Tea Party types. But it's unlikely that either he or his small handful of fans have either the brains, guts or energy to do anything more dangerous that give themselves strokes ranting about whatever their momentary obsessions are.

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