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.
In order to tar all of Europe's right, even just the upsetting xenophobes clothing themselves in worry about jihad, you must demonstrate a causal mechanism by which concern over cultural outsiders becomes murderous rage against the very people you claim to protect (in this case, ethnic Norwegians). Without being too trite, it requires an especially deranged mind already far outside the mainstream to decide to slaughter children at summer camp just because it is run by a left-wing political party. Associating that sort of mentality with the mainstream is not just wrong and lazy, it is hypocritical.
Indeed, much of the Western's left's quasi-triumphalism over the Norwegian tragedy revolves around it's complete non-relationship to Islamic terror. Here, so many seem to celebrate, is the proof they had finally sought that right-wing politics are not just annoying and wrong, but actively dangerous. That this creates the exact same mentality of the Pamela Gellers of the world, who think the actions of a few crazed militants is representative of Islam as a whole, has so far not prompted much restraint in the commentary industry. (Though, I suppose asking a pundit to be restrained is a bit like asking an alcoholic not to drink at a bar.)
I've yet to see where right-wing European xenophobes have actually advocated murder or violence to advance their goals. What, then, motivated Breivik to murder?
People take action for a complex mixture of reasons. They feel motivated, yes, just as often by inflammatory words as by personal experience. Breivik's manifesto gets caught up in questions of "reverse discrimination," whereby the racially pure white Norwegians are allegedly beaten down and excluded by those terribly minorities -- but as in the U.S., which has debated on occasion whether anti-white sentiment is a natural consequence of affirmative action, 99.999999% of all Norwegians who feel this way do not translate that anger into violence.
Behavior, ultimately, is a product of one's environment: ideas, yes, but also social pressure, family pressure, norms, constraints, inspirations, barriers, and expectations. Sometimes, these constraints push a man to do any number of heinous things. It doesn't excuse the man himself (at the end of the day, you always have the choice and the responsibility not to react to your circumstances violently), but it makes the question of "why" terribly difficult to understand. It is deeply complex.
Focusing only on Breivik's words, as the commentariat has done this weekend, is not just hypocrisy, it misses the point. Breivik wanted us to focus on his words -- in a way, his disgusting butchery was meant to advertise his writing. We owe his victims better than that, better than playing his game. Breivik the man was more than a book-length rant on race politics. He was the product of his own environment, one we have not even begun to understand. Moving from rhetoric into action is really difficult, and it happens for reasons we just don't understand. To really answer the question of why Breivik committed such atrocity, we have to move beyond his politics and his carefully placed manifesto. Anything less would be a disservice to the children he so ruthlessly murdered.
Image credit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti