Anders Behring Breivik and the 'Anti-Jihadist' Blogosphere

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Pamella Geller, Robert Spencer and Mark Steyn shouldn't be blamed for the Oslo massacre. But they should temper their rhetorical excesses.

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Were sympathy a finite resource, this week's ration would belong to the citizens of Norway, especially the survivors of the attacks and the families of the dead. Fortunately, giving them their share doesn't diminish our store. It is therefore appropriate to spare a thought for the writers named in the Oslo killer's manifesto. Had my name been among them, I'd have felt awful even had I done nothing wrong. Aside from the Unabomber, it's likely that everyone cited by the killer as influences were horrified by his acts, and would never advocate anything like them.

But it's too easy to say that killers always bear sole responsibility when people die by their hands. Think of the propagandists whose broadcasts urged Hutus in Rwanda to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors. In stark contrast, recall the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Contrary to what some have argued, it is wrong to assign any blame for that incident to Sarah Palin and her banal cross-hairs poster, unless we're all guilty of assault with carelessly deployed metaphors.

Where is Oslo on that spectrum?

Certain writers named by the killer, like Mill, Locke, Burke, Twain, and many others besides, are innocent of wrongdoing. In the public conversation, that's basically how they've been treated. But other writers known for their zealous anti-jihadism -- Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Mark Steyn, and several others -- aren't getting off so easily. The killer shared their particular belief that European liberals are enabling a Muslim takeover with their multicultural philosophy. Thus critics of these writers insist that irresponsible rhetoric on their parts helped shape and poison the mind of the terrorist. The writers have plead innocent and are defending themselves.

The matter is complicated by the fact that it's impossible to know the killer's mind. Ideas surely matter, but assigning culpability for bad ones is difficult enough when the relevant party is a rational actor.

Here, he is a murderous sociopath.

Were I judge and jury (I'm speaking metaphorically -- everything we're discussing is rightly protected by the First Amendment), I'd throw out the most serious charges against the defendants, despite my objections to their work. It isn't just that normal people don't react with violence to the arguments they've articulated. Only one person, among all the nut jobs in the world, has done so. Absent future incidents (heaven forbid), it just isn't fair to hold them culpable.

But all three writers are guilty of a lesser journalistic crime: whether due to a penchant for rhetorical excess or genuinely held but wrongheaded beliefs, each exaggerates the threat that radical Islam poses to Europe, which isn't to say that it poses no threat, or that radical Islam is a verboten subject of discussion. It is both a vital subject and a volatile one. But a closer look at their rhetoric reveals as much bluster as rigor. In a single item, it is hardly possible to take on the whole of their oeuvres, but we have room enough to address some representative examples.

Take Pamela Geller. Here is what she said when President Obama pondered moving terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to a maximum security prison: "Obama is bringing his jihad to Illinois. Has anyone asked the people of Chicago if they want KSM's soul mates in their state? Obama's treachery is breathtaking." Characteristically, it wasn't enough to object to the president's policy. Instead she bizarrely asserts that Obama has himself taken ownership of a jihad, that Illinois residents were to be its victims, and that he is guilty of treason. Were all that true -- if the president of the United States really was a traitor waging Islamic holy war on the citizenry -- a lot of people would conclude that radical action was needed to end a dangerous situation. Only because no one actually takes Geller seriously did her rhetoric prove harmless.

Robert Spencer is one of the writers who exaggerates the prospect of sharia law being implemented in the United States. Put another way, although there is no chance of it happening, he treats it as an imminent threat that requires a legislative fix. And when sharia bans are found unconstitutional? The judge is deemed a "dhimmi" and Spencer asserts it as a sign that "the people... have ceased to be their own rulers." Again, if sharia law as understood by Spencer was about to reign in America, it would be cause for serious alarm. Luckily, few take him seriously.

Mark Steyn is a far more talented and careful writer than Geller or Spencer, and his alarm at challenges to free speech in Europe and Canada is justified, as is his critique of the less defensible aspects of multiculturalism, always captured with an anecdote at the ready. But his method of argument is too often just series of allegedly telling anecdotes marshaled in service of an ultimately unpersuasive, defeatist narrative: that demography and a lack of civilizational confidence among Europeans dooms America to stand alone against a future dominated by Islamists.

Here let's focus on the impression he gives that he is alone in objecting to violent and illiberal manifestations of Islam. "Mark Steyn's book is...an insistence that we recognize an extraordinary threat and thus the possible need for extraordinary responses," Christopher Hitchens writes in his mostly positive review of America Alone. "He need not pose as if he were the only one with the courage to think in this way." Quite so. Despite the extraordinary changes to American life since 9/11, some justified, others not, and most supported by liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, you'd think from reading Steyn that Islamist aggression is the lonely concern of a few Cassandras, rather than the central preoccupation of the national security state.

The common flaw among Geller, Spencer and Steyn: all ratchet up more anxiety about Islam than is justified by the facts. Ponder the arguments outlined in this essay alone. An impressionable person reading the trio in succession would conclude that a somnambulistic America is the world's only hope to avoid living under sharia law; that viable attempts to impose it on American citizens are ongoing even now; and that President Obama himself is supportive of the civilization-threatening jihad!

How many people can assert such things before small numbers of the disaffected take them literally? If all that were true, wouldn't a lot of people respond violently? Overheated, hyperbolic rhetoric must come naturally once you've immersed yourself in the hard core anti-jihadist blogosphere. Regulars there lose the conviction that words have precise meanings, and the belief that arguing with integrity requires staying within their bounds. Shortcuts are so much easier, hence the frequent descents into ad hominem, the constant reliance on hyperbole, and the crutch of playing on the civilizational anxieties of the audience, in an effort to shake them into awareness.

Jeffrey Goldberg offers sound counsel. "Free speech means free speech," he says of Geller. "But she should be aware now that violent people look to her for guidance, and she should write with that in mind."

Quite right.

That doesn't mean that she or anyone else is at fault for the killings in Norway, or that she or anyone else should stop writing about the threat posed by radical Islam. It merely means doing so more responsibly, as any number of other writers manage to do, as a sensible precaution -- one that is onerous only insofar as it demands going no farther than the unexaggerated truth. "If Norway responds to this as the left appears to wish, by shriveling even further the bounds of public discourse," Steyn writes, "freedom will have a tougher time." Having gone on trial in Canada to defend free speech, he's earned the right to be wary of overzealous speech restrictions. But he'd be wrong to conflate mere requests for less calculatedly hyperbolic punditry with that specter.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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