Blaming Extreme Rhetoric for Extreme Acts
News that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a fan of anti-Islamist sites, including Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch and Pamela Geller's Atlas Shrugs has opened a big can of schadenfreude.
News that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a fan of anti-Islamist sites, including Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch and Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs has opened a big can of schadenfreude.
Dr. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychologist and former CIA officer, told the New York Times that, while it would be unfair to blame the authors of these sites for Breivik’s crimes, their contention that Salafi Islam “is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged” applies to them: “they and their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.” He added, “This rhetoric is not cost-free.”
Geller does herself no favors by calling the Times, NBC, and others as “the sharia-compliant media” and accusing them of “blood libel,” a phrase I’d hoped died in the aftermath of the Tuscon murders. For that matter, her question “Why doesn’t the media ever call out Islamic imams who really do incite to violence for their real calls to kill?” is absurd; these things are constantly reported, well known, and uniformly condemned in the civilized world.
But her larger point, that it’s absurd and outrageous to claim that calling out radicals is somehow a call to violence, is spot on. She tells The Daily Caller that “It’s like equating Charles Manson, who heard in the lyrics of Helter Skelter a calling for the Manson murders. It’s like blaming the Beatles. It’s patently ridiculous.”
For his part, Spencer calls Breivik a “disgusting neo-Nazi” who “epitomizes the disrespect for life and the contempt for humane values that terrorism embodies, and that we have dedicated our lives to resisting.”
Yes, there’s a certain karmic justice in the people who led the movement against the so-called Ground Zero mosque, on the basis that a free society can’t allow Muslims to worship at a place where the most heinous members of that religion committed murder in violation of its fundamental tenants, to feel what it’s like to be stupidly painted with a broad brush. As the Center for American Progress’ Matt Yglesias quipped via Twitter, “Anti-Muslim bloggers suddenly discover that collective responsibility is wrong.”
He points to Adam Serwer‘s Washington Post blog which begins, “American anti-Islam bloggers aren’t to blame for the Norway Massacre. But their response to the attacks is nonetheless revealing, in that they are now demanding the kind of nuanced analysis of the Norway shootings that they’ve always failed to offer when implicating jihadism or all Muslims for terror attacks.”
Slate’s William Saletan twists the knife deeper:
On Friday, anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller pounced on news of a massacre in Oslo. “Jihad in Norway?” she asked. She posted a second item—“You cannot avoid the consequences of ignoring jihad“—and linked to a previous one: “Norway: ALL Rapes in Past 5 Years Committed by Muslims.” As the Oslo body count grew, shepiled on: “if I hear another television or radio reporter refer to muhammad as ‘the ProphetMuhammad,’ I think I am going to puke. He’s not your prophet, assclowns.”
Then things went horribly wrong. It turned out that the suspected terrorist in Norway wasn’t a Muslim. He hated Muslims. And he admired Geller.
He notes, too, that the targets of Geller’s venom have issued the same sorts of condemnations of violence in the name of Islam as Geller has in the Oslo slaughter, to no sympathy from Geller.
Geller has pursued this line of attack most aggressively against Faisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who wants to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. Abdul Rauf, accused of radicalism by Geller and Republican politicians, has done everything possible to refute the charge. He has denounced al-Qaida as un-Islamic. He has said, “I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.” He has invited the U.S. government to vet potential funders of his center. He has rejected the idea that Sharia overrides civil laws. And when U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, the imam declared: “I applaud President Obama for his resolute efforts in the war against terror, including bringing Bin Laden to justice.”
Despite these statements, Geller continues to depict Abdul Rauf as a terrorist sympathizer. Her evidence is a series of secondhand, thirdhand, and nonexistent connections. “Rauf is an open proponent of Islamic law, Sharia, with its oppression of women, stonings, and amputations,” she asserts, falsely. He “was a prominent member of the Perdana organization, a leading funder of the jihad flotilla launched against Israel in 2010 by the genocidal Islamic terror group, IHH.” One of his books was supported by the International Institute of Islamic Thought and the Islamic Society of North America, which are “Muslim Brotherhood fronts,” and ISNA “was named an unindicted co-conspirator” in a “Hamas terror funding case.” Another Abdul Rauf book was promoted in Malaysia at a meeting of an organization that’s been banned in some countries.
So, perhaps there is some rough justice in the shoe being on the other foot. But the fact that a group is unreasonable in its interpretation of facts doesn’t mean we should adopt their intellectual framework in analyzing them. While doing so may be amusing and perhaps even instructive, bad reasoning remains bad reasoning. And, at the end of the day, Saletan refuses to engage in it:
The vindictive part of me wants to blame Geller and her ilk for what happened in Oslo. But then I remember something Abdul Rauf said: “The Quran explicitly states that no soul shall be responsible for the sins of another. Terrorism, which targets innocents who had no part in a crime, fundamentally violates this Quranic commandment.” That principle—that no one should be held responsible for another person’s sins—is the moral core of the struggle against terrorism. It’s the reason I can’t pin the slaughter in Norway on bloggers who never advocated sectarian violence. I just wish those bloggers, and the politicians who echo them, would show Muslims the same courtesy.
American Security Project fellow Joshua Foust goes further:
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.
While agreeing that Breivik is ultimately fully responsible for his own crimes, Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell nonetheless argues that the “rhetorical milieu in which Breivik and other extremists swim deserves scrutiny.” On that much, we agree. The question is: to what end?
As Foust notes, the Internet is full of bad ideas, including a great deal of hate speech. Decent people should condemn it. And to the extent intelligent people with large followings are spreading the false message that the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are somehow responsible for the crimes of a handful of their brethren, other intelligent people with large followings should speak up against that notion.
There’s a fine line, though, between arguing against bad ideas and calling for civility in our discourse and chilling honest and vigorous debate. There is legitimate reason to talk about things like immigration policy, militant Islam, and national cultural identity. To shut down that discourse because the likes of Anders Behring Breivik might commit outrageous acts of violence would not be “cost-free,” either.
Photo: Reuters Pictures.
In bizarro world, Geller = Beatles.
Good post. I thought the best thing written was that Breivik was more driven by hatred of his happy “liberal” peers than of Muslims, wish I could find it now.
Hence, the attack on Labor Party camp. Same with U.S. nutballs, they probably hate affluent latte-drinkers perceived as “liberals” more than Muslims.
No doubt that these right-wing nutball websites give inspiration if not direction to diseased minds. The analogy of Maj. Hasan/jihad and Breivik/”counterjihad” works pretty well.
I strongly agree with you here James. While we cannot change the Gellers of the world, if responsible people will not ignore their extremism and attempt to discuss these issues in good faith, we will be much better off.
JJ, well said.
I don’t have much to add. The Saletan piece was good. By Geller’s own faulty reasoning, she’d be responsible for this massacre. But she’s not, because it’s faulty. Not that Geller will learn that lesson. I guarantee she will go right back to pushing the same faulty arguments. The only hope I have is that some people who might have been inclined to listen to her remember this.
News that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a fan of anti-Islamist sites, including Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch and Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs has opened a big can of schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude is taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. That’s not what’s going on here. There’s a bit of “I told you so” going on vis a vis the so-called “counter jihad” nuts, but I don’t think anyone is taking pleasure from the fact that a psycho killed a bunch of kids.
Whatever your views on the causal link between rhetoric and violence, the Beatles analogy is spurious. Nobody but a lunatic could have interpreted “Helter Skelter” as having anything whatsoever to do with Manson’s beliefs. In contrast, it is obvious to lots of sane people that there is a close relationship between Gellar’s views and Breivik’s, even though his are more extreme. She may not have advocated violence, but she did promote hate and intolerance, which are a common prerequisite to violence.
@mantis: It’s the backlash against Gellar and company that’s the source of happiness, not the murder spree.
@Kylopod: I agree that it’s not the world’s best analogy. But it’s hard to read the sites in question and come away with the idea that it would be a good idea to blow up Norwegian children attending a Labour Party camp. I don’t think Breivik is fundamentally crazy in the way Mason is, but he’s just as evil.
If the liberal parties of America and Europe — I assume for the sake of discussion that America *has* a liberal party — are collaborating in the destruction of Western civilization by ignoring the Islamofascist menace, then it’s rational (if not very efficient) to murder young leaders of those parties and hinder their future effectiveness.
Geller et al. have preached hatred, and someone drew a rational conclusion from it, putting his money where their mouth is. These extremist bloggers remind me of the old Tom Lehrer ditty:
‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department’, says Wernher von Braun.
Not my department, say Geller and her ilk.
@Rob in CT: Not likely that there will be any changes on Geller’s part. She has an audience that wants to hear what she says/writes and she’s playing on that.
In my view Pamela Geller doesn’t have a point with her defense against the current backlash claiming she is blamed for calling out radicals.
She doesn’t call out radicals. She and others not only conflate radicals with a whole group but invent a whole set of conspiracies to link radicals with inside “enemies”, which is exactly Breivick’s world view. As Anderson pointed out, Breivick went a step further and attacked the “inside enemy”.
Her comparison between her situation and Helter Skelter/Manson is particularly ridiculous. At no point did The Beatles advocate there would be a war amongst whites concerning the treatment of blacks as Manson claimed. It was a pure invention on Manson’s part whereas Breivick isn’t attributing to Geller thoughts she never expressed.
I am all for free speech and I would never support legislation that would prevent the Gellers and Spencers of the world to post what they want. But when the shit hits the fan they are in no position to cry foul. As far as I am concerned they are just a few inches from being comparable to someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
At risk of repeating myself from another thread, the violent rhetoricians are the target-selection mechanism for crazy and evil people. I don’t think they cause the evil or the crazy they just helpfully point the killers in a particular direction. “When you snap, here’s who you should kill.”
That doesn’t make them killers, or the moral equivalent of killers. But it buys them a piece of that culpability.
I don’t know, there seems to be a certain percentage of people of all groups who snap – and they’re going to find a meaning one way or another to do so. There’s always a Helter Skelter for a guy like Breivik; I think its more a case of people latching onto something that justifies their hate, and if there’s nothing explicit, they’ll find it implicitly without much trouble.
@Kylopod: You may be right that he’s not Manson-level crazy, but I’d like to hear more about this Knights Templar organization and particularly whether it exists. If it’s imaginary, he might turn out quite schizophrenic.
Pam Geller is closer to the center of the Republican Party than its fringe.
Her squirming is delicious, but watching the “decent” Republicans trying to pretend she’s not one of them is more enjoyable.
The problem with the Gellers and the Spencers of the world, is they normalize the hate. They make it OK for the Breiviks of the world to hate and fear the “others”. Once it is OK too hate, it is a small step from there to action of some kind and it should come as no surprise when some take action of the wrong kind. There are too few on the right speaking out against the Gellers and Spencers making it seem like it is the party of hate for Muslims. Bush spoke out against it, and could again. I wish he would because it seems nobody else in the Republican party will.
@george: “I don’t know, there seems to be a certain percentage of people of all groups who snap – and they’re going to find a meaning one way or another to do so. ”
Yes, that’s why so many liberals have attacked right-wing politicians and spokespeople in the past few years.
So, you’re into keeping store? How many liberals, how many conservatives, how many muslims, how many christians, etc? If so, you might want to consider that this kind of thing is a type of poisson distribution, and a meaningful time scale is going to be over decades (ie the time scale is going to be on the order of an average human life). So the attacks on Reagan and Ford are part of it.
Personally, my impression is that the chances of any individual from any group (liberal, conservative, muslim, christian, athiest ect) doing such a thing is extremely small (as in about six standard deviations down); the pattern is extremely weak, and falls into the category of people seeing what they want to see (ie believing is seeing).
Making generalizations about a population based on what occurs in a group six sigma removed is generally considered evidence of insanity.
I have to admit I don’t recall ever hearing of Geller before this week. Using my vast powers of projection, I’m going to suggest 99.99% of my fellow Americans haven’t either. From what I gather, it doesn’t seem like she needs greater exposure.
BTW/ the Westboro Baptist Church came to my town last week to protest KISS. The newspaper buried coverage in the crime beat section, which was probably for the best.
I have to admit I don’t recall ever hearing of Geller before this week. Using my vast powers of projection, I’m going to suggest 99.99% of my fellow Americans haven’t either.
Were you asleep during the Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory Mosque Sharia Takeover of the United States? That whole thing was started by her, and she was on TV and in the papers constantly at the time (and many times before, and since).
@mantis: Ground zero? Was that the issue OTB ran 257 posts over the course of two and a half months, after commentors had confessed that they didn’t have a legal right to stop the project, but the issue provided an important opportunity to explain the nature of Islam?
(I am familiar with Jihad Watch, which seems more like a press clipping site)
Isn’t that true of most wingnut celebutards like Victor Davis Hanson and Jonah Goldberg?
Check out this shill for Geller’s awful book:
The state of Republican thought summed up in one concise quote.
@george: In the end, we don’t see liberals doing this, and haven’t (in the USA at least) for a few decades. And especially not the mass-casualty attacks.
BTW – it’s well known that the Poisson distribution only applies to horse kick deaths in a Prussian cavalry corp 🙂
James, your demand for nuance irritates me. It irritates me because every time there is an incidence of Right-wing terrorism, plain and clear as day, conservatives and purveyors of hate speech are there to rush into the breech crying “First amendment! Lone nut! No true Christian!”
The right-wing will disavow responsibility for these attacks while reaping the benefits. This has occurred for decades in abortion clinics around America. It has happened to federal buildings and politicians. It happened to the Unitarian Church in Knoxville, TN, where I live. It happens to our policemen with frightening regularity.
And every time there’s an incidence of right wing white terrorism, it is not nearly as scrutinized and debated as incidences of Islamic terrorism. Why is that? No one seems to want to know.
What’s amusing is that it’s also staggeringly obvious that the Right-wing blogosphere was prepared to NOT demand nuance if the terrorist attacks were in fact perpetuated by Muslims. They were almost salivating at the chance to exploit the fear and horror of Western society and once again use it for their agendas, such as war with Iran.
Unfortunately, a pattern now exists. Right-wing fear and hate mongers happily disavow responsibility but will gladly reap the benefits of any terrorism that furthers their agenda (or even obliquely praise the terrorist, like Glenn Beck). How many people in Republican districts are afraid to put up an Obama 2012 sign lest they become targets? How many abortion doctors have fled red states before they too were killed? It’s all part of a campaign of fear and intimidation that is not coordinated, but exists regardless. For some reason, conservatives do not want a light shined there or are determined to muddy the issue.
The “lone nuts” are like the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda; useful idiots that will happily sacrifice their lives for the promise of paradise. All the rhetoricians need to do is sprinkle enough invectives against the target or ideology of choice and the watch the crazy bubble forth.
So no, there is nothing chilling in asking conservative hate-mongers to be more decent, and condemning them when they are not. Unless you wish to extent the same courtesy of nuance and the “it’s just rhetoric” excuse to Hamas and Iran?
You know what? I thought I had calmed down about this issue until I went to Balloon Juice and read this post by DougJ, highlighting Ross Douthat’s odious claim that a terrorist’s actions should not stifle his legitimate concerns about society.
Try to imagine any single American doing the same for Osama bin Laden. Oh wait, I can, Ward Churchill did it and was pilloried immediately by most of the media. Somehow I don’t think anything similar will happen to Douthat.
If there’s a greater example of “terrorist sympathizer” than Ross Douthat I would like to see it. Utterly disgusting and yet a perfect example of what I was talking about; for Douthat, this terrorism incident is just another opportunity to remind us of Europe’s futile immigration policies, while the terrorist’s actions are glossed over.
@Lit3Bolt: Douthat is a pretty sane commentator and is right. Of course we should still be able to discuss immigration policy.
For that matter, it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss the ways in which US foreign policy might be aggravating our relations with the Muslim world. That’s quite a different thing than saying that we deserved 9/11 or brought it upon ourselves.
James Joyner @ Top: News that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a fan of anti-Islamist sites, including Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch and Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs has opened a big can of schadenfreude.
Has it occurred to you that lefties are not indulging in schadenfreude, but in fact are honestly and rightfully angry that conservative terrorists are targeting the center-left and shooting their children in the face? And fear that extreme conservatives in this country, indulging in similar anti-left eliminationist rhetoric as Breivik’s, may engage in the same type of terror attacks?
One only has to look back 16 years in this country to see a similar extremist attack from a domestic conservative terrorist in Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing.
The anger, fear, and concern from the center-left in this country is neither irrational nor misplaced. And it is not mere schadenfreude.
@JGabriel: Concluding that two incidents, on two continents, over a span of 16 years is some sort of trend is not, in my judgment, rational.
@James Joyner: Given the glibness of your response, I can assume that the answer to my initial question …
… would be a “No” then.
For added glibness, ask James for another breathless prediction of Ghaddafis imminent demise.
@ponce: Uh, when did I predict that? I’ve been against the fiasco in Libya since the subject first arose. The closest thing that I’ve said to this is that, given the forces arrayed against him, he’ll inevitably fall at some point.
@JGabriel: So far as we know ONE–count ’em, ONE–anti-Islamist terrorist has gone on a shooting spree against his fellow citizens. I reiterate: ONE.
It’s tragic and outrageous. It is, however, neither a trend nor an indication that people who are mean and stupid on the Internet are responsible.
You would be correct, if it were only 2 incidents;
when you add in the shooting of Gabby Giffords, the assassination of several abortion doctors, bombing of abortion clinics, the Atlanta bombings, the several instances of shooting of local police officers by rightwing nuts, and add the numerous rightwing militias like the Hutaree, the Spokane MLK day attempted bombing…
it becomes a pattern, and quite rational to connect them.
As I mentioned after the Giffords shooting, there is a difference between saying things hatefully and saying hateful things.
Saying the the President is a bastard and deserves to die is expressing an opinion hatefully;
saying that there can be no peace between Islam and Christianity, and the very existance of Islam is a mortal threat to us, is a hateful thought, no matter how politely it is expressed.
The crucial difference is that the second thought is triumphalistic, and eliminationist; the rhetoric of Pam Geller is like that, in that if it were followed to its logical end leads to only one place, Anders Breivik.
She never actually called for him to do what he did, but she didn’t have to- anyone can easily follow her train of logic, and if you accept her premise, his actions seem not only rational, but necessary and inevitable.
Allow me to also make a bold prediction: It is almost certain that he will die some day of some cause.
@ponce: We’re extraordinarily good at deposing leaders of other states, especially those without much popular support. We suck at “winning the peace,” otherwise known as post-conflict reconstruction.
The only reason Gaddafy has held out this long is that we decided to simultaneously go to war and not. Deposing a leader without the use of ground forces is much harder.
The oddest thing about this is that:
A number of conservatives point out a number of muslim attacks over the years, and say that they are indicative of Islam. Liberals of course deny this generalization.
A number of liberals point out a number of conservative attacks over the years, and say that they are indicative of conservatives. Conservatives of course deny this generalization.
Meanwhile there are at least a billion Muslims in the world, and probably at least half that many conservatives (judging by election results just in North America and Europe). So we have a situation where maybe a thousand (to be very generous) Muslims and five hundred conservatives (again to be generous) have taken part in such actions – ie one in a million … and people are looking at this and saying the equivalent of: “one in a million is a significant fraction on which to base an opinion on a group”. Do they even teach math in schools anymore?
Isn’t it odd that America’s hand-picked puppets are still in charge of Iraq and Afghanistan?
@James Joyner: Just curious, did you think Ward Churchill should have been fired for his 9/11 comments? (And yes, I know that technically that wasn’t the cause — but we all know it was the real cause.) Or is it only a fireable offense to consider the “serious issues” motivating a terrorist when said terrorist doesn’t agree with your friends?
@WR: It so happens that I wrote a post on 5 February 2005 titled “Should Ward Churchill Be Fired?” My conclusion:
In response to an incident at against David Horowitz at Butler in April 2005, I wrote:
Upon Churchill’s actual firing in July 2007, though:
So, right to be a lefty kook? Protected. Right to be a fraudulent academic? Not so much.
Of course we should be able to discuss immigration policy James. Discuss it all you wish.
But when you defend your right to discuss it in the context of a terrorist’s actions, when the terrorist has made that his motivation and explicit concern, it’s…disturbing, to say the least. Ross Douthat is smart, yes, but he’s also calmly discussing the motivations of the Unabomber vs. Al Gore, and saying that someone who has recently murdered children might have a fair point regarding immigration. That’s morally repugnant. And many on the Right would agree without hesitation if the terrorist was from Iran.
To put it another way, as Steve Hynd does at Newshoggers, it’s not as if people on the Right are calling on their followers to practice nonviolence. They are not denouncing these actions with vigor and banning commentators for violent calls to action. There are no Right-wing Martin Luther Kings or Ghandis (at least that I know of…correct my ignorance, please). Why is that?
For whatever reason, many on the right have refused to purge violent militant thinking from their midst. And that deserves scrutiny and social condemnation. Just as it would with any Muslim terrorist and “those who harbor them.”
@Lit3Bolt: It’s absurd to lump Ross Douthat and other mainstream conservatives and their sites in with the likes of Gates of Vienna or the fellow quoted in this post. That there’s some overlap in their belief system is irrelevant.
Douthat isn’t saying Al Gore and the Unabomber are the same; he’s arguing–correctly–that the Unabomber’s existence doesn’t undermine Gore’s legitimacy.