Tag Archives: Al-Qaeda

Anders Behring Breivik: terrorist or madman?

27 Jul

Flowers in Oslo

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.

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Between the symbol and the reality…

17 May
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

Image via Wikipedia

For my money the assertion by many US commentators that the world is a better place without bin Laden is triumphalist bull dust. It will take a great deal more than the death of a terrorist to make the world and America, a better and safer place.

The killing of bin Laden was symbolically significant for the US. Had he been captured and tried, the result would have been a running sore, unresponsive to any known treatment. His assassination and burial at sea serve to draw a line under the events of 9/11 in a way in which bin Laden captured alive could not. The US government was aware of this. The US government knows the political value of closure, and the political risks of taking him alive.

The symbolic value for the US is that they got the alleged mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and in getting him, restored symbolic supremacy in a way  the Iraq invasion has been unable to accomplish. What this means for the reality of the daily life of many in the US is obscure. When you lose your job and your home, and you can’t pay for your medical care, is there comfort to be found in recalling that your government got bin Laden?

Whether his death was morally right is another question, and a fraught one at that. Killing an unarmed man who apparently poses no threat in that moment – dubious. Denying him natural justice – dubious. Eichmann got a trial, and he was responsible for enabling the murder of many more human beings than bin Laden, though they were not Americans. Mossad agents hunted him down in South America and brought him back to Israel where justice publicly prevailed.The world has changed since Eichmann, and assassination is apparently favoured over the rule of law

We’ve lost our taste for lengthy, painful trials: just taking them out is so much more efficient.

Whether or not bin Laden’s assassination demeans us as human beings is debatable, and probably depends on your individual moral sensitivities. In my opinion it’s no more demeaning than our invasion of Iraq, based as it was on lies about weapons of mass destruction, Western capitalist self-interest, and the linking of that country’s regime with the events of 9/11, a link that has never been established. We are collectively demeaned by our governments’ complicities, no matter what form they take. We are also helpless to prevent them.

I understand the American need for expediency in the bin Laden situation, though it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Politically there’s far more to be gained by killing him than bringing him in alive.  On the other hand, the West continues to demonstrate that we operate by a set of rules that when turned against us we decry as illegal and terroristic, such as the US invasion of Pakistan’s sovereign territory, resulting in acts of murder. The West is at war and the enemy is terrorism, is the justification. The new rules of engagement require the forfeit of sovereignty by certain countries in the interests of entitled Western states prosecuting that war as they see fit.

Since the 2003 invasion, some 110,183 Iraqi civilians have died violent deaths, with Coalition forces responsible for higher casualty rates than anti-Coalition forces for all weapons combined, as well as for small arms gunfire. That figure is regarded as an underestimate since the release of Wikileaks cables apparently adding another 15,000 lost civilian lives. But these lives are not Western lives and they were lost in what Western leaders considered a “just” war. No matter that bin Laden and his followers no doubt consider their war “just” and the lives lost in 9/11 similarly collateral damage. Is state sanctioned terrorism morally superior to the terrorism perpetrated by a band of cave-dwelling religious fanatics? Is the determination to impose Western liberal democracy on every country in the world itself a form of fanaticism?

Nothing will change in America as a result of bin Laden’s death. The gap between the haves and have nots will continue to widen. This distance never had anything to do with terrorists, or the events of 9/11. School teachers will continue to face up to 20% reduction in their salaries as part of budget cuts. Citizens will continue to arm themselves in record numbers, in spite of the 2010 FBI statistics that reveal the crime rate has dropped. Fear will continue to govern the hearts and minds of Americans, fear of each other, fear of their government, and fear of terrorism.

Those who were affected by the events of 9/11 I hope will feel some relief, and some closure. But the death of bin Laden is not going to make anybody more compassionate, generous, accepting and caring about one another. It’s not going to make the small number of Americans who hold the greatest wealth consider paying fair taxes so that others can have a shot at a decent life. It isn’t going to halt the unemployment rate. It isn’t going to house the homeless.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Indigenous people of Australia was a powerful symbolic act surrounded by great emotion, but in reality little has changed since the apology was made. In the same way the assassination of bin Laden will bring no change to the lives of the American people who most need it. Both acts generated a great deal of emotion, but emotion is ephemeral and without the will to enact real change, emotion is nothing more than indulgence. Symbolic acts are vital in any society but they are supposed to be representative of a reality:  they have no life in and of themselves. We seem to have forgotten that. We seem to have settled for the belief that the symbol, and the momentary emotional thrill it brings, is all we need.

Of course it was right that Rudd should say sorry, but saying sorry was a beginning, as well as an ending. Of course bin Laden had to be hunted down, but that too is a beginning as well as an ending. Symbols mark the possibility of and hope for change. When that hope is not realized the symbol is rendered ineffective and hollow.

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