If it wasn’t for the tragic loss of dozens of lives, the intellectual gymnastics which have followed the shootings in Norway would actually be quite funny. As it is, they’re just the icing on a particularly depressing cake. It’s not just the screeching u-turn the punditocracy (and the editorial staff at the Sun) performed after realising the attack wasn’t actually carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. It’s not even the way an atrocity magically stops being “terrorism” as soon as people realise it wasn’t masterminded by a bloke with brown skin and a beard. No, what really gets me is the blame game, and the glaring inconsistencies which get ignored on all sides as a result.
Over at LibCon, Adam Bienkov takes Boris Johnson to task for denying that Anders Behring Breivik’s rightwing political leanings had anything to do with his decision to carry out the shootings, pointing out the obvious discrepancy between his denial that rightwing anti-multicultural and anti-Islamic rhetoric were a causal factor in this case and his assertion in the Spectator in the wake of 7/7 that Islam – rather than a few isolated fanatics – were “the problem”. Now, if you were feeling charitable you could perhaps interpret Johnson’s assertion that “[Breivik] killed in the name of Christianity – and yet of course we don’t blame Christians or “Christendom”. Nor, by the same token, should we blame “Islam” for all acts of terror committed by young Muslim males” as a renunciation of his previous position, rather than evidence of inconsistency. If he has altered his views however, he clearly doesn’t have the gumption to make this change of heart explicit, so it seems fair to assume Bienkov’s right to criticise Johnson for this. The trouble is, Bienkov doesn’t really do so well in the consistency stakes himself.
The news that Breivik was a fan of Melanie Phillips and seems to have had links to the EDL is taken by Adam Bienkov as evidence that
“the hard-right ideology pushed by certain pundits in the press has questions to answer now…whilst we shouldn’t entirely blame right-wing ideologues for helping form those packs, we shouldn’t entirely absolve them from their responsibilities either”
…which is fair enough. Except that he’s also derisive of this now-notorious Jerusalem Post editorial which suggests that Breivik was motivated by an aversion to multiculturalism – a view which, the editorial makes clear, he shares with much of the mainstream Right across the Western world. So rightwing commentators in the mainstream media who are vocally opposed to multiculturalism and whom Breivik admired shouldn’t be “entirely absolved” from responsibility for his actions, but suggesting that his actions are an expression of discontent with multiculturalism is a disgraceful attempt to make political capital out of a tragedy? Please. We can do better than this.
Here’s what we need to remember. First, when someone performs a voluntary action, there’ll be a number of reasons why they do so. Those reasons might be good or bad (morally or otherwise), as might the action itself. Seeking to explain the reasons for a morally reprehensible action is not the same thing as justifying or excusing it, whether the person performing that action is an Islamic fundamentalist or a far-right Christian. Second, when someone writes something that motivates someone else to do something terrible that the writer wouldn’t condone, how far the writer is responsible for the actions of their more
deranged violently fanatical readers is pretty much impossible to state with any certainty. Any attempt to do so is almost inevitably going to be coloured by one’s ideological leanings. Is Marx responsible for the gulags? Hayek for sweatshops, or the murders of trade unionists in Latin America? Jesus for the Spanish Inquisition? The Prophet Muhammad for 9/11? It’s easy to be self-righteous when it’s not your set of cherished values being called into question, but it doesn’t do much to advance the debate.
[Edited to remove a pejorative term related to mental illness, in response to this article]