Must all conservatives answer for the actions of a psychopath?
Anders Behring Breivik believed himself a Knight Templar and awarded himself various military ranks accordingly. He also believed that he and other self-described racists had common cause with jihadis and that the USA has a Jewish problem. So even before he planted a car bomb in a civilian area and gunned down scores of young people, it would have been clear to anyone who bothered to question him that Breivik was insane.
But in the coverage since his atrocities first broke on to the world, two troubling tendencies have converged. The first is the search for reason in a mind that was clearly a stranger to it. The second is the tendency — particularly strong on the left — to use any horrific act as a megaphone for existing prejudices. In the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford in January, the left-wing media and politicians hunted for the right-wingers who they claimed had inspired the attack. That the gunman was not only a loner but a psychotic maniac was largely ignored as they rushed off excitedly to attack their ideological enemies. And so it is with Breivik.
For the past decade and more, every time an Islamist has blown something up, a chorus of voices — mainly from the left — has rightly said that ‘we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions’. But this time it was different. The Labour MP Tom Harris observed, with great frankness, that a ‘palpable relief that swept through the left when the identity of the terrorist was made known… Here, thank God, was a terrorist we can all hate without equivocation: white, Christian and far right-wing. Phew.’ So never mind not jumping to conclusions. When it seemed to emerge that, among many other things, the killer also claimed to be opposed to immigration and was fearful of Islam, that jump became a great leap towards group blame.
Within two days of the attacks, the New York Times insisted a ‘new attention’ would need to be focused on ‘the subculture of anti-Muslim bloggers and right-wing activists.’ Not ‘far-right activists’, or psychotic right-wing extremists, just ‘right-wing activists.’
A leading left-wing British blogger decided that the real story of the Norway tragedy was that in his bizarre online manifesto, Breivik had quoted from articles by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times. As with the Giffords aftermath, it was insinuated (and more) that conservative columnists are not merely people the left disagree with, but active facilitators of murder.
Others attempted to draw a line from recent criticisms of multiculturalism voiced by Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron to the massacre of dozens of young Norwegians. Some, including the Independent, swiftly turned what spotlights they have on Geert Wilders and right-wing, anti-immigration parties in Scandinavia. Ken Livingstone’s former right-hand man, Lee Jasper, took the opportunity to claim that Breivik and Mayor Boris Johnson were eminently confusable. While Jasper was working for the old mayor, Livingstone had of course invited Yusuf al-Qaradawi (advocate of suicide-bombing and apocalyptic sectarian warfare) to London and given him the red-carpet treatment. But nothing to see there. Please move along and instead gawp with horror at this awful fact: Boris has the same hair colour as a murderer and he’s also a Conservative!
The agendas as well as the hypocrisy are rank. Not least because the left are disobeying their own rules. In recent years, voices who have spoken out against Islamist extremism have constantly been berated not to ‘essentialise’ Muslims. I agree. It is idiotic and improper to lump any large and disparate group of people together. It is why so many caveats, so many ‘ists’, ‘isms’ and ‘aren’ts’ are included in any article about Islamist extremism (there I go). But surely it should work in every direction?
Just as it is wrong to lump all Muslims into a single homogenous block, is it not also wrong to group all white-working-class people together? Or conjoin all people worried about immigration or preserving their culture and label them: ‘racist’ or ‘extremist’? If essentialising is wrong one way then surely it should be wrong any way. But there is no quid pro quo.
It is the same with ‘root causes’. Every time an Islamist explodes a bomb, we’re told by the left that we must ‘address the root causes’ behind the attack. By root causes they always mean whatever their particular political bugbear is, usually western foreign policy. Why no calls to address any root causes this time?
And so the moral equivalence that swiftly becomes moral blindness grows.
Some comparisons between Islamist extremists and Breivik are useful. They are certainly similar types of sicko (a fact I hope he comes to realise one day). But there are also salient differences. At least one must be that, in the wake of Breivik’s atrocity, not a single Christian leader, right-wing journalist or right-wing politician (including those cited by him) expressed anything other than condemnation and revulsion for his actions. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. No ‘important to understand the wider context’ or ‘driven to despair’ nonsense. Just horror. Unlike the suicide bombers who gets shrines and public squares named after them, Breivik (like the Brick Lane/Soho bomber) will only be memorialised among a sick and covert coterie of extremist loners who, though undoubtedly dangerous, speak for no one.
The unanimity of the reaction to Norway matters. But so does the nature of our response. Norway’s Prime Minister was right when he said that the response to this atrocity should be ‘more democracy, more openness, and more humanity’. Within that should be a careful effort not to give up the principles which some are now putting up for grabs.
As people trawl the online activities of the Oslo killer looking for answers they will turn up the usual contradictions and obscenities of the terrorist mind. They may also stumble on opinions which are not by nature extremist and not always without foundation just because a sick and deranged man thought them right.
There will remain ample and decent reasons for Europeans, including Norwegians, to be worried about the future of their countries, and good and honourable reasons to express concern about mass immigration and problems that can result from it. There are, it goes without saying, ways to discuss this. But in recent years that discussion has not always been as open as it should have been. Policies have not been explained to people and conspiracies have all too often sprung up where frank public discussion and a suitable measured political response could have cut them off at source.
Conversation on vital topics was driven underground — and not only among the disenfranchised. I have lost count of the number of times that politicians of all parties have told me something only to say that of course they could never say any such thing in public. Such censorship, including self-censorship, hugely benefits extremists. Subterranean conversations are what people like Breivik thrive on, with their claims to membership of nonexistent mystical orders and their love-hate affairs with imaginary world conspiracies.
Most of what is said in open debate is not to everybody’s taste. But, as John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, we must hear contrary opinions. Firstly, because what is otherwise kept from us may be true, or contain a portion of truth, and secondly because if our opinions go unchallenged then truth risks getting divorced from its rational roots and eventually becoming a dogma too feeble to sustain.
As a result of the discussion that right- and left-wing writers and politicians have initiated in recent years, a number of serious errors in our society have been rectified and a number of important principles reiterated. This is a direct result of that freedom.
One of the last things Breivik did before going on his killing spree was to appear on Twitter with a quote from Mill. The least of Breivik’s crimes that day was that he showed he didn’t understand Mill any more than he understood anyone else he quoted.
To date, all Breivik will be remembered for is that in a few horrific hours he managed to rob so many people of the only thing truly worth anything — human life. It would be more than such a man should ever have accomplished if he now deprives us all of the conversation free societies must have if they are to remain free.