Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Suspect

Anders Behring Breivik

It turns out that the prime suspect in the worst violence that Norway has seen since World War II is a native Norwegian with no foreign ties. Police still have not yet determined if he acted alone or as part of a group.

The scale and violence of the attack led everyone (including yours truly) to initially conclude that the attack was the work of Islamist terrorists. Norway is not the neutral country most assume it to be. It is a member of NATO. Its military is very much involved in operations in Afghanistan and Libya. Norway is a relatively soft target compared to the USA or France or Britain. It would make sense for Islamist groups to target Norway for an attack either as retaliation, or in an attempt to split the Western alliance.

We were all wrong. Police say that he is a Christian fundamentalist and a racist, but so far there are no indications of ties to any group. The extreme right is comparatively weak in Norway compared to large and well organized groups in Sweden and Denmark, and certainly nothing like the well organized, well funded,-- and well armed -- far right groups in the USA. Like an earlier right wing terrorist in this country, he apparently used a fertilizer bomb, though that is still unconfirmed.

The European far-right frequently slips beneath the American cultural radar. Americans, both right and left, tend to fixate on European welfare states, creations of the experience of the Second World War when the inherent instabilities and uncertainties of unregulated capitalism uprooted and impoverished millions of people, driving the violent ideological movements that made the War. The American left envies those cradle-to-grave-care systems and the American right despises them. Both sides miss the profound struggles over national and cultural identity taking place in Europe now as those old nation states face a much more cosmopolitan and interdependent world. Out of those struggles emerges a new and energetic far right driven by anti-immigrant xenophobia, renewed antisemitism in eastern Europe, and just plain racism.

It is remarkable how frequently fundamentalism and racism appear together. This is certainly not always the case, but it happens a lot. I think the connection is supremacism. Neither fundamentalists nor racists believe in anything like universal salvation or universal human rights. They both believe in Chosen communities, chosen by God or History or Destiny or whatever. They both believe that their group will inherit the earth and that all others are but usurpers, doomed to be swept away by God or Nature or History or whatever.

Norway's experience over the next few months and years will be grief and shock that something like this could happen in so peaceful and remote a country as theirs. So many people, especially young people, died and leave behind hundreds of bereaved family and friends. The special shock and grief of seeing people so young die so suddenly is probably the worst pain of all. Those families and friends will need all the help and support that their country, and all the rest of us, can give them.

It will be interesting to see if and how this calamity affects the political and cultural conflict here. What exactly do we mean when we call someone a "terrorist?" And if Breivik for whatever reason doesn't qualify as a terrorist to some, then why not? What about the role of religion in matters of cultural identity (a tribal issue)? Should religion matter in cultural identity? Should religions like Christianity that make universal claims even be involved in any way with matters of national or ethnic identity? And there is the whole issue of who speaks for Christianity? Who gets to define what it is? Who owns the copyright? Christianity, like Islam, is ridden with conflict over issues of belief, practice, and identity, conflicts that arise as it faces modernity. Like Islam, Christianity faces the choice between rejecting modernity completely, its cosmopolitanism, its liberalism, perhaps even its science and technology; or somehow embracing it despite the nihilism of the market economy and its culture, and making a productive relationship with it.

And of course, there is the role of violence. An extreme rhetoric of elimination pervades Right wing political speech here. There is a corresponding extreme language of vilification beginning to appear in some left circles in reaction ("for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," said Isaac Newton). Could we see similar violence in this country? We already have with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and many smaller violent incidents since then. Because it is human nature to generalize from the particular, we could see Christians of all persuasions lumped in together and vilified. We could get a taste of what our Muslim neighbors have been going through for 10 years. For all I know, Norwegians could get singled out for extra scrutiny from now on. People and their fears and loathings can be strange and capricious.

Above all, we must be careful when we look at the picture of Anders Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama Bin Laden, that we are not looking into a mirror. Those men had nothing but their fears and loathings. We must always be careful that ours do not take us down a similar path.

Roy Lichtenstein, Mirror


Robert said...

Fundamentalism and racism often demand the same mindset; magnifying the threat of the rejected 'other' in order to magnify the acceptance of the in-group. In both cases you get an identity politics rooted in an 'us/them' worldview.

Murdoch Matthew said...

Modern and Modernity have specific and useful meanings, but I fear that they make cultural differences sound like matters of fashion. The old world-view is fading, not because it's old-fashioned but because the world doesn't work that way. Since Galileo and Darwin, we've come to depend on evidence and observation, not authority or customary narrative. People are still enthralled by the power of story -- story can explain, involve, create a sense of reality. But even a story that rings true and convinces cannot claim to be true if there's no evidence for it, or it goes against evidence. Defenders of some stories claim higher truths, but they don't seem to work out over time. Theologies and religions are clashes of tradition and opinion, with no way to settle differences except by force. They despise mere facts, that expose them as the constructs they are.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

A great poat, as allways!

Counterlight said...


Indeed. Good point.

Counterlight said...

Göran, it's great to have you back here!

it's margaret said...

You said, "Like Islam, Christianity faces the choice between rejecting modernity completely, its cosmopolitanism, its liberalism, perhaps even its science and technology; or somehow embracing it despite the nihilism of the market economy and its culture, and making a productive relationship with it."

Is there a third way? --certainly the gospel is neither modern, nor must it embrace modernism to speak its truth... it turns all times upside-down.... exposes all power bullpucky....

And those who choose hatred, condemnation, violence, or scapegoating (which may be an adjunct sister in this case) have no idea what the gospel is... just sayin'.

I am lamenting the violence and death in Norway in 'full caps' --if you know what I mean.

Tristan Alexander said...

Oh please! Christians will NEVER be held accountable or lumpped together like we do Muslims! Tim Mcvey got away with his Christian hate and NO one said Christianity should be banned, or suspect or even blamed for his actions! Most even claim he was not Christian! I have no doubt Christians will suffer not one bit due to the killings in Norway! To try and paint Christianity as a potential victim is just what the right wing would love! They already try and claim that not allowing them to be bigots we are denying their religious rights, so they get special laws and are allowed in the name of religious tolerance, to hate and spread hate!

Counterlight said...

"Because it is human nature to generalize from the particular, we could see Christians of all persuasions lumped in together and vilified."

"Oh please! Christians will NEVER be held accountable or lumpped together like we do Muslims!"

Quod est demonstratum.

Counterlight said...

Margaret, I certainly do not advocate an uncritical embrace of modernity at all. There is plenty to criticize and oppose in modernity, not least the nihilism of market capitalism and the reductivist tendencies in so much modern thought.
But, I don't think a wholesale rejection is any kind of a realistic option. For all of its problems, huge masses of people are pinning their hopes on those positive aspects modernity, not just technology, but concepts of democracy and social justice.

JCF said...

Goran! It's Goran! :-D {JCF Happy Dance} I *hate* that it's this horrible crime that brought you to posting, Goran, but I'm so thrilled to see you here.


I think that when it's a member of a group we see as "Other", we (collective we of the "Us") say "Evil!"

But when it's a member of a group (more) like Us, we say "Crazy!"

[I remember hearing a 1st generation German-American classmate of my 60s-70s youth describe Hitler as "crazy", for example. To the extent Timothy McVeigh was seen as "Christian" was the extent he was seen as "crazy" (whereas to the extent he wasn't---in the main---he was seen as "evil". A similar dynamic holds for the KKK, and abortion-provider murderers). I've heard some Muslims describe Al Qaeda as "crazy", too.]

It will be interesting to see if this dynamic plays out here.

Prayers for Norway...

it's margaret said...

Social justice I would consider to be a gospel imperative.

I am --personally-- given recent experiences --not so hopeful about the positive aspects of democracy --as we know and experience it... It is purchased too easily... and is often merely mob rule. (Although I cannot think of any other system which might have hope either!)


Still grieving for Norway.

Counterlight said...

I don't think McVeigh thought of himself as Christian in any but the most tribal sense (if he did so at all).

Christian = not Jewish

Other than that, I don't think he cared a rat's ass about it.

I would imagine this guy in Norway is not much different.

The very few people who want to claim McVeigh as one of their own belong to Dominionist and racist "churches."

He's one of ours only in that most tenuous and superficial sense of tribe, not creed.

Counterlight said...

Social Justice may be a Gospel imperative, but it took very modern concepts of social contract, constitutionalism, human rights, and feminism, as well as very modern types of organizations like political parties, political movements, civil rights movements, and labor unions to make that Imperative happen. Also, modern technology really made a lot possible that would not have been so in earlier times (from the printing press to the internet).

Counterlight said...

I add my prayers for Norway, especially for all of those young people whose lives and futures were so brutally stolen from them, and for their heart-broken families and friends who will never be fully whole again.

Murdoch Matthew said...

It wasn't just a summer camp. It was a training camp for the young members of the leading political party. Some blogger said it was as if a Terminator from the future had come back to kill a future prime minister. A whole generation of political leaders was wiped out. A political event indeed.

Tristan Alexander said...

Just wondering, why it is that if someone of a group you like/agree with does something wrong, you distance yourself from them and claim they are not REALLY one of your group. Like Hitler and this shooter were Christian, you can't just sweep that under the rug

Counterlight said...

I'm Christian (in terms of both tribe and creed). I'm white. So is he. And so are you.

Counterlight said...

Also, Mohandas Gandhi was a vegetarian and a teetotaler.
So was Adolph Hitler.
I'm neither.
Does this say anything about vegetarians and teetotalers in general?

So let's just all continue to draw broad general conclusions about whole groups of people from very specific particulars.

Counterlight said...

Since you are an atheist, why don't you claim Stalin and Pol Pot as two of YOUR own?

Counterlight said...

I keep forgetting, you insist that we CAN generalize from the particular, and so, ALL Christians are just like this guy, just as ALL atheists are Stalin.

Distinctions be damned.

ALL Christians are responsible for the Inquisition, and ALL atheists are responsible for the gulag and Tuol Sleng.

Tristan Alexander said...

First, I am not an atheist, never have been never will be. NOT being Christian does not mean I am an atheist. Second, I was not making generalizations, I was asking WHY others, like you, can disowne members of your groupo and claim they are not Christian (or whatever) when they do bad things but won't do the same for others etc? You are very very one sided, and generalize like crazy and then claim others do it when they disagree with you.
I should go back to not posting, I know. For a short while we had discorse, but then I didn't just agree...won't post again here for a few weeks at least. Hope to never post again!

Counterlight said...

And you're a model of dispassionate impartiality???

So what do Stalin and Pol Pot say about what atheists are? What do Gandhi and Hitler say about the nature of vegetarians? What does Anders Breivik say about the nature of Christians or of white people?


Counterlight said...

When I put this post up, I just knew I'd be having this argument with you. I should have taken wagers.