Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The womb of monsters?

Until today, the horrible crimes of Anders Behring Breivik hadn’t forced me to change any of my preconceptions about the world. Most of the terrorist atrocities carried out in the West and Middle East in recent years have been carried out by Islamist militants, so a lot of instapundits rushed out boilerplate articles like this one explaining why Al Qaeda hates Norway, and ended up looking foolish when the real perpetrator and his agenda were identified within hours.

My own first thought, when I heard about a bomb and a gunman on the rampage was that Islamist militants, like those who’d bombed London and Madrid and run amok with guns in Mumbai, were probably responsible. When I heard that this was the work of a homegrown crackpot with a different agenda, though, I didn’t have to do any particular agonizing reappraisal. My first guess was wrong, but I knew that the world has had many other types of murderous lunatics and terrorists with other agendas and backgrounds. Just think Timothy McVeigh, or the Tamil Tigers, or Aum Shinrikyo, or The Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Continuity IRA for starters.

Breivik didn’t challenge my preconceptions about terrorists and what seems to motivate them. In fact, he seemed quite typical of the breed. Although he identifies himself as an extreme anti-Islamist, there seem to be a lot of similarities between this self-styled defender of Western Christendom and the jihadists.

The ideology of Breivik  and of the Islamists is, as far as I can see, exclusively about the politics of identity. There is a perceived in-group, whether Western Christendom or the Islamic Ummah that is supposedly under threat from the Other in the shape of  immigrants, Muslims, Infidels, liberals or Zionists. The in-group is the only source of virtue, the Other is the source of all evil and corruption. Therefore the Other and anyone who “collaborates” with the Other must be destroyed in a zero-sum battle for survival.

Brevik has been described as a Christian conservative, but I don’t think this quite covers it. From his rambling manifesto ("2083: A European Dealaration of Independence") he sounds like a reactionary rather than a conservative. He’s not trying to conserve the status quo, because he thinks that society has already gone to hell in a handcart. His aim seems to be to go back to a lost supposed golden age before things went all liberal and muticultural.

His manifesto makes almost comically nostalgic references to the 1950s as an age when chaps wore hats and come home to a dinner cooked by a little woman who didn’t worry her pretty little head with thoughts of anything but childbearing and looking after her home and master, an age when men could have a good laugh at the expense of ethnic minorities and homosexuals without the politically correct brigade objecting to  their allegedly  hilarious banter. All this pipes and slippers tosh sits rather weirdly with stuff about the Knights Templar, an order of monastic warriors that was abolished in the Fourteenth Century and is relevant to precisely nothing in the modern world, except for Brevik’s fantasies and the plot of a Dan Brown novel.

Again, if you strip out the cultural specifics, what he seems to want echoes the Islamist militants’ agenda:

  • A move back to a traditional, monocultural society. Check. 
  • Keeping uppity women in their place (viz. the home). Check. 
  • Disgust at a liberal society that judges gay people, like everybody else, by the content of their character, rather than by what they choose to  do in private with consenting adults. Check.
  • Historically suspect fantasies about a semi-mythical lost  world of virtue in the conveniently distant past, involving either crusading Knights Templar or the Islamic Caliphate. Check. 
  • Baffled by the concept of “live and let live.” Check.  
  • Getting disproportionately angry about all of the above. Check.

Maryam Namazie, a long time campaigner against Islamist violence and oppression, also noticed the correspondences between Brevik and Islamist terrorists and made this  simple but  powerful statement  on her blog:

For those who constantly 'advise' me and us to work with all sorts against Sharia law and Islamism, this tragedy is a confirmation of why we must stand resolutely against both.

You cannot fight Islamism, a far-right regressive movement, without also fighting the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and fascist European far-Right.

They are two sides of the same coin.

They represent everything our world must not become...

There’s not a lot I’d add to that, except to point out that, unbearably tragic though Brevik’s actions must be for those involved, we’re not involved in some epic existential clash of cultures or War On Terror here. Brevik’s actions were inexcusable, devastating and shocking, but, the chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack  are still minuscule compared with the risk of  death  from such everyday tragedies as heart disease, cancer, accidental injury, road traffic accidents, suicide, fire, electrocution, flood, or falling off a ladder. There are no vast networks of terrorists in the West, just a tiny minority of, isolated individuals and loosely connected groupuscules. The rest of us, whatever our background, have far better things to do with our lives. That’s the last thing that Brevik and the Islamists have in common – they’d all like us to join their frightened little world, become terrified and suspicious of the Other and retreat into a paranoid tribal huddle, which would be the worst possible reaction to their actions.

So far, so unsurprising. Brevik  fits the template and is the very model of a modern murdering maniac. Nothing here to challenge what I thought I knew about the subject. One thing, though, has made me pause and re-examine a long held preconception.

Coincidentally, in Texas, they’ve just executed another home-grown ideological killer, Mark Stroman, who described himself as a ‘proud American.’  After the September 11th attacks, Stroman went on a vengeful gun spree, determined to kill Arabs. He blasted away at three random, blameless strangers, killing two and seriously injuring one. Not only were the people he attacked wholly unconnected with September 11th, but they weren’t even Arabs, (they all came from South Asia). Stroman was killed by lethal injection despite his surviving victim, Rais Bhuiyan (a Muslim Bangladeshi), having appealed for clemency.

In some ways, Stroman also fits the Brevik/Islamist xenophobic template, having lashed out at the alien Other in defence of his tribal identity - in this case as a ‘proud American.’ But there’s one difference between Stroman and Brevik that disturbs me and challenges one of my preconceptions. Stroman’s attacks are an example of the most outrageous bone-headed pig-ignorance possible. He didn’t know and wasn’t able to, or couldn’t be bothered to, find out why a small group of fanatics carried out the September 11th attacks. As far as he was concerned, the attackers were Arabs, and that was all he needed to know. It didn’t, apparently, occur to him to ask whether any other Arabs supported the attack, and, if so, were they a majority, or just a tiny minority. He never considered the possibility that most Arabs might be just ordinary folk, as unconnected to the attack as any ‘proud American.’ Having made the assumption that all Arabs were exactly the same and all were guilty, he wasn’t even able to establish that his victims were Arabs – dark-skinned and foreign-looking seems to have been good enough for him.

Stroman’s attack fits my preconception that one of the drivers of such attacks is ignorance, the womb of monsters. If he’d been better educated, had the first inkling of a clue that the world is a complex and diverse place, was able to actually identify a Middle Eastern country on a map and had the basic mental toolkit for distinguishing fact from opinion and weighing up evidence, he could never have sustained the level of muddle-headed misconception and rage needed to justify his actions in his own head. Or so I thought.

Brevik’s manifesto, however, challenges this particular preconception. It is, of course, barking mad, but it’s not ignorant. Among all the delusional fantasies about the imagined Muslim demographic threat, the Knghts Templar, the uniforms and medals pertaining to his fantasy order of  Justiciar Knights and a “Cultural Marxist” conspiracy, there are profiles of figures such as Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm. There are citations and bibliographies and interminable  discussions of topics including historical revisionism, anti colonialism, the history of Islam, janissaries in the Ottoman Empire, the dhimmitude of Zorastrian community in Iran, the Crusades, eunuch slavery, the history of the Hindu Kush, the Armenian Genocide, the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, birth rates in different countries, feminism, the immigration policy of the British Labour Party, sociology, Hip-Hop and media ownership. He quotes from Tony Blair, George W Bush, Bill Clinton, The Koran, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, CIA reports, Nietzsche, Jay-Z, Yuri Bezmenov, (a ‘former KGB agent and expert on ideological subversion’) and Alexis de Tocqueville.

This is the bit that I found unexpected and truly worrying. Of course, being well-read is no guarantee that a person isn’t delusional or a psychopath, but I did have a belief, all things being equal, knowledge was better than ignorance and that exposure to a wide range of viewpoints, arguments and examples broadened the mind, sowed the seeds of doubt and questioning, and inoculated people against fanaticism. I was pretty confident that in a world where people like  Mark Stroman were exposed to diverse and challenging ideas and just knew more stuff, doubt and evidence would drain the swamp of irrational hate and fanaticism. It's clearly not quite that simple.

Ignorance is frightening, but not as terrifying as a mind that can be exposed to such a wide range of  knowledge and ideas, then twist the lot into one great mad mangled conspiracy pretzel. I hadn't relised until now how effective prejudice, obsession and cognitive bias can be at flattening the highest mountains of evidence. I think my world view just bumped into a reality checkpoint.