Since the news of the Norwegian massacre broke, the blogosphere and mainstream media have been engaged in understandably urgent efforts to make some sense of the weekend’s ghastly events. One of the methods employed is a semantic discussion as to whether or not the perpetrator ought to be identified as a terrorist, or a lone madman acting out his insane fantasies.
As some authors have pointed out, the term terrorist is largely used when the violent events are performed by Islamic fundamentalists. When the perpetrator is identified as white and homegrown, they are described as mad, lunatic, a lone wolf, or a crazy isolationist. Terrorism has become synonymous with Muslims, while attacks on civilians such as those carried out by non Muslims like Anders Behring Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, or Jared Lee Loughner are constructed by the media and often politicians as the insane actions of a crazed loner.
In fact all three of these murderers of non combatants had a political agenda that to them justified their actions, and all three had a political and ideological goal – this is the definition of a terrorist.
The reluctance of the West to identify it’s homegrown aggressors as terrorists is symptomatic of a widespread Islamophobia that defines terrorists as Muslims. Islamophobes perceive Islam as violent, aggressive, and supportive of terrorism. Islam is widely associated with terrorism, by Islamophobes, unlike other major religions, and largely as a consequence of the 9/11 attacks on the US. The term terrorist when used in much Western media signifies cultural and emotional associations with Islam, indeed it has apparently become a metonym for Islam.
That this is the case was proved beyond doubt when global mainstream media initially declared the Norwegian terrorist to be an agent of Al Qaeda. With no evidence and little information, prominent commentators in the popular press made this assumption based solely on the nature of the attacks. When the gunman turned out to be an “Aryan poster boy” who expressed a loathing of Muslims and identified with right wing Christian fundamentalists (as well as our own homegrown John Howard, Cardinal Pell, Peter Costello and Keith Windschuttle, all of whom are quoted admiringly in Breivik’s manifesto) this came as something of a shock to the complacent, and as it turned out ignorant, purveyors of media misinformation.
In an aside, the Windschuttle link above will take you to Murdoch journalist Andrew Bolt‘s blog. There you’ll find the headline “The new blood libel of the Left,” underneath which Windschuttle presents his response on hearing of Breivik’s admiration of him and the Left’s “gleeful” reaction to this.
In another aside, the contentiously anti semitic term “blood libel” was used by Sarah Palin when she attempted to defend herself against charges that her extremist right wing rhetoric had inspired Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords is Jewish.
What a tangled web.
Murdoch’s minion Bolt, one of the many public voices who rushed to judgement, declared when he discovered the killer had ties to right wing Christians that Breivik was not really a Christian. Presumably this is because Christians don’t carry out such atrocities, while in Bolt’s book Muslims do.
At this moment it is likely of little interest to the families and friends of the Norwegian dead, and to the injured survivors of Breivik’s monstrous attacks whether he is defined by the rest of the world as a terrorist or a madman. Those of us less directly affected are privileged to be in a state of mind that permits these speculations. While it makes no immediate difference to the agony so many people must be feeling, it is important that those of us who can do have this discussion: we owe it to the dead and injured, and to those who mourn, to ensure that the truth be spoken as best as is possible about the man who brought this misery and loss down upon them, and about the world in which he developed his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim philosophy.
It is too easy to describe Breivik simply as crazed, though mentally unhinged he most certainly is. Breivik is also a terrorist. There is an argument that all terrorists are inevitably crazed, that the act of slaughtering civilians in the pursuit of a political and/or ideological goal is not the act of a sane person. Whether or not Breivik would meet the legal definition of insane is as yet undetermined but certainly colloquially there can be no doubt.
But that’s not the end of it. Breivik is also a product of the zeitgeist. Islamaphobia is everywhere. The beliefs that to him justified his rampage are everywhere. So widespread, so culturally embedded are they in the West, that his murderous actions were immediately attributed to the group he so powerfully loathed. It could only be Al Qaeda or its associates, for who else kills Westerners in a terrorist attack?
The irony is heartbreaking.
What we owe to the Norwegian dead and grieving is to seriously examine ourselves and the societies in which we live. While Breivik is an extremist and his actions are thank God extreme, scapegoating, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric and the beliefs that fueled his insanity are everywhere, and are increasingly normalized as they are sanctioned by the mainstream political system and the media that represents it.
We could start in our own back yards. For example, the Malaysian solution. Is it just a coincidence that the majority of the 800 asylum seekers we will send to Malaysia will be Muslim, while the majority of the 4,000 refugees we receive in return will be non Muslim?
Breivik did not kill Muslims, for all his hatred of them. He killed the young members of the Norwegian political party he believed was responsible for allowing Muslims into his country in greater numbers than was acceptable to him. He killed his own people. He is a domestic terrorist, like McVeigh and Loughner. Like McVeigh and Loughner, he is also crazy.
It can also be argued that any of these terrorists could have hung their craziness on whatever cause took their fancy, and this is also true. The impulse to slaughter and the capacity to act on the impulse is in their personalities. Politics and ideology did not make them into murderers. Politics and ideology offered them an avenue for the expression of their extreme violence and hatred.
As for the origins of that violence and hatred, we may never know. Many, many people endure difficulties and hardships in childhood and very few become terrorists. Many many people feel violent and hateful, but they do not act on those emotions. There are human beings whose pathology is inexplicable. But when there is a perfect storm of pathology and zeitgeist, the terrorist is born.
There is little we can do about the pathology. About the zeitgeist we can do everything if we have the collective will. But we will need leaders who give a damn.