Debates over representation and cultural difference rarely spill into violence. To understand the shooter, we must look beyond politics.
The terrorism in Norway is appalling, unforgivable, and shocking. Anders Behring Breivik was deeply involved in a growing movement in European politics, as activist Bruce Bawer notes, becoming well-known in right wing groups and circles "concerned... with the Islamization of Norway." But what does that mean? It would be easy to react against all right-wing movements, but that is, in fact, a mistake. It is also rather unfortunate hypocrisy.
MORE ON NORWAY TERROR ATTACKS
Jeffrey Goldberg: On Suspecting Al Qaeda in the Norway Attacks
James Fallows: A Norwegian View on the 'Mutation of Jihad'
Jeffrey Goldberg: Mumbai Comes to Norway
Steve Clemons: Jennifer Rubin's Fear Mongering
Jeffrey Goldberg is absolutely right to push back on the clutched-pearls reaction by several writers here at The Atlantic who complained the world was too quick to assume al-Qaeda was behind the vicious acts of Norwegian terrorism.
Before we knew what was going on, the attacks did seem to show the hallmarks of its particular brand of Islamist terrorism. Even well-known Internet forum trawlers like Evan Kohlmann were quoted by respectable publications (not just right-wing bloggers at the Washington Post!) as noting some jihadi groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. My friend Will McCants, who also noted the claim of jihadi responsibility -- then carefully walked back that assessment as new information emerged -- was nevertheless hammered for "Muslim fear mongering."
The idea that the attacks in Norway looked like other al-Qaeda attacks was made all the more trenchant by recent, informed analysis that al-Qaeda was targeting the country. But it was still wrong. In the aftermath, now that we know a right-wing extremist with ties to other right-wing groups in Norway and Europe carried out this atrocity, the media is being flooded with explanations of why he did it. Commentators, pundits, analysts, "counter-terrorism experts," and plain old reporters are vigorous searching for explanations within Breivik's ridiculous manifesto (which I shall not link to here) and his connections to Europe's right wing. No matter what, this will lead to a false sense of why he committed such violence.
Not that there's anything wrong with understanding the schools of thought Breivik subscribed to. It is important that he emerged out of an intellectual movement that includes Brussels Journal, Pamela Geller, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer, as it shows how he developed and formed his worldview.
But it does not follow that these writers should be linked to and blamed for his attacks. All of them, to a person, have distanced themselves from and condemned Breivik's actions.
While, as a writer, I will never argue that words have no power, on the Internet talk is cheap and easy. It is simple -- I would argue even lazy and ignorant -- to be hateful and venom-spewing on the Internet. But as Breivik showed last week, it is actually very hard to take action on that hatred. Say what you will, but his entire modus operandi -- a fake play at being a farmer, timing his manifesto's appearance on the Internet right before his atrocity, using the car bomb in Oslo to distract from his merciless slaughter of children at summer camp -- is that of a calculating mind taking great pains to make sure his destructive acts will have maximum impact. Breivik was a monster, but he was no amateur. And now, just as he wanted us to, we are obsessing over his every little thought, jot, and tittle.
In reality, no one really understands why they or anyone else behaves the way they do. Lots and lots of people -- not just on the Internet but in Europe, and even within Norway -- think and write things very similar to what Breivik thought and wrote. Across the continent, a pretty explicitly racist backlash against not just immigrants but Muslims immigrants is growing, and Breivik was active in that ideological community. Very few of them ever become violent in any way. Breivik may have come from the European anti-Muslim right wing, but he certainly does not represent it.