A question of ideology?

The death of over 90 people – mostly teenagers at a Labour party summer camp – at the hands of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway last Friday was in itself an incredibly depressing tragedy, but the reporting and “analysis” offered by much of the media in the aftermath of the massacre added to that depression through farce. In the early stages of reporting, where basic details like the death toll and the number of terrorists had yet to be established, media outlets were already repeating unverified – and, as we now know, false – rumours that the atrocity was the work of radical Islamists. Perhaps the most flamboyant example of this shoddy journalism came from the Sun, who added to their already-substantial tally of disastrously misinformed front-page headlines by branding the incident an “’Al-Qaeda’ Massacre”. That same paper used the opportunity of what it thought was a high-profile Islamist attack to call in that issue’s editorial for the arrest of “Muslim hate preachers” and a continued British presence in Afghanistan. Even if the attacks in Norway had been the work of radical Islam, the link between it and the Sun’s policies would have been extremely controversial. As it was, the Sun’s total lack of concern for any connection between propaganda and reality was elegantly demonstrated by the fact that they didn’t even bother to wait for confirmation that there was any link between Friday’s murders and its own political agenda. Presumably somebody at the paper has realised that Islam in fact had nothing to do with what happened, as the online edition of that same editorial has all references to al-Qaeda removed. The Sun was by no means alone in jumping to politically-loaded and incorrect conclusions – as respected an organ as the Wall Street Journal also blamed “Jihadists” (in another editorial that would be revised after the facts came in).

This kind of mistake is more than just a problem of journalistic standards: it’s also symptomatic of common acceptance of stereotypes that may cross the line into outright Islamophobia. It seems likely that the news organisations who ran articles crying “Jihad” before the facts were in felt secure that their version of events would be confirmed before too long – after all, who else would commit a horror on this scale but Al-Qaeda? It’s worth remembering that the majority of acts of political violence in Europe are perpetrated not by some kind of international Islamic conspiracy, but by various flavours of home-grown terrorist – in particular, by separatist movements or members of the extreme Right. While perhaps less well-represented in popular culture and the collective consciousness than Jihadists, it is very arguably these kinds of murderers who pose the greater material threat to Europeans.

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All of which brings us to the political message of Anders Behring Breivik. After Breivik’s identity was revealed, the coverage turned to a discussion of his “motives” in carrying out the attack. Journalists wishing to go down this path were helped by the fact that Behring has published many of his views on the internet. It turns out that he believes an exaggerated version of nearly every cliché in far-right ideology: Europe, for him, is in the grip of a crisis of immigration, with western civilization menaced by the twin spectres of Islam and “Marxism”, the latter of which having apparently seized control of our cultural and governmental institutions. Given the unarguable right-wing tone of these beliefs, it is tempting to use Friday’s events to draw inferences about the effects of right-wing ideology more generally: in particular, that the massacre represents something like the “logical conclusion” of the kind of agenda that might be pushed by such figures and outlets as Glenn Beck, the Daily Mail, Geert Wilders, or whoever. Certainly, this isn’t the first time that right-wing ideology has sanctioned horrible acts. Ibrahim Hewitt, writing for Al Jazeera, tells us that “Right-wing ideology was behind the Holocaust; it has been behind most anti-Semitism and other racism around the world; the notion of Europe’s and Europeans’ racial superiority – giving cultural credibility to the far-right – gave rise to the slave trade and the scramble for Africa leading to untold atrocities against ‘the Other’; ditto in the Middle and Far East.”

Nonetheless, we must be very wary of drawing direct links – explicitly or implicitly – between the violence that has occurred in Norway and any popular political programme. Mainstream right-wingers do not advocate murders of this kind, and while some may believe the views of Glenn Beck or the Daily Mail to be reprehensible, that does not justify the imputation onto these people of even more reprehensible views that they do not hold. And it’s worth pointing out that almost every ideology that has achieved mass popularity has motivated some of its followers to violence – even larger-scale mass murders than the holocaust have been committed in the name of socialism, while left-wing ideals were espoused by such domestic murderers as the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Provisional IRA. Of course, most people who consider themselves left-wing would think it absurd to suggest that they should be associated with these kinds of atrocities – and rightly so. But it is important that the courtesy of being held to account for what you actually advocate, not for everything someone on your “side” of the political “spectrum” does, is extended to everyone. It’s not enough to say that right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck make violence inevitable by creating an atmosphere of millenarianism and paranoia among their viewers – any major critique of society will create that danger to some extent, as it will argue that certain features of the world we live in are in urgent need of change. Anyway, it’s deeply unclear that contemporary discourse has much effect on people’s like Breivik: most of his writings were cribbed from the manifesto of the Unabomber, whose campaign of violence took place in a very different political context (the United States between 1970s and 1990s). It is fairly plausible that the real motivations for mass murder of this kind do not lie in the domain of political theory at all, but rather in the state of mind of the killer, who then chooses (consciously or otherwise) an ideology that best fits their pre-existing violent tendencies.

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There is a natural urge, after a horrible event of this kind, to look for answers that are easy to understand. It might well, in a strange way, be comforting to think of Breivik as another enemy in a broader political struggle against the “bad guys”. But drawing quick connections between the killer and some easily identifiable bogeyman was exactly the mistake that the Sun and the Wall Street Journal made. While Breivik purported to be following a political mission, it will require a great deal of evidence that we do not currently have access to about his psychology and influences before we can blame any third party for contributing to what has happened. Until then, we should be very wary of pointing the finger at any political ideology. There are plenty of compelling reasons to oppose the far right in Europe. As it stands, what happened in Norway last week is not one of them.