Crazy People and Terrorism

Jul 26, 2011

Half MastIt's inevitable with breaking stories that the media is going to call some things wrong, what's more concerning is that it tends to do this in ways that are revealing of deeper problems. Immediately after the attacks in Norway the commentariat's initial reaction was to blame it on Islamic terrorism, which is understandable because it is after all the sexiest kind of terrorism. That the information that the majority of terrorist attacks in Europe are committed by home grown groups is easily found on the internet is neither here nor there - as Charlie Brooker put it, the media coverage was less experts than guessers and they "were terrible, like toddlers hypothesising how a helicopter works."

The news media is rarely humbled or apologetic when they get things wrong but simply moves on to being wrong about something else, often in the same story. The next step here is the assertion with little proof, that Anders Breivik is insane. It might well turn out that he is, but in the meantime not only does this reinforce the harmful stereotype connecting mental health issues with violence, it's also a bit convenient because irrational people can't be expected to be reacting to incentives and so it absolves anyone else of responsibility in creating an environment where he felt that terrorism was a good idea. It's not clear to me that his actions are inherently irrational, it's very apparently a politically motivated crime with the express purpose of a) harming 'the enemy' and b) gaining him and his beliefs exposure. Given the well-established pattern of how the world's media cover shootings, b was at least was a slam dunk. The Norwegian court in closing the hearing was operating under the strange principle that it shouldn't be a complacent part of a mass murderer's pre-meditated promotion strategy, something that media outlets have always had much more trouble doing. His (I'm assuming pre-prepared) image plastered websites and newspapers for days, the 24 news channels didn't stop for speculation and examination of his motives, and the attack spurred a series of 'He's obviously an awful person, but he's not wrong' articles. It's not the start of the revolution he hoped for but as a political act, it was far from inconsequential. Dismissing him as simply a 'maniac' ignores the fact that the reaction of the media to massacres like these actually acts as a powerful incentive to commit them.

On the other side of the blame game, insanity neatly helps those who occupy relatively mainstream spaces in society and have spent years fear mongering about Islam pending takeover of Europe to create a comfortable distance between themselves and Breivik. I'm going to pick on Tim Stanley's Telegraph post for being well ahead of the curve on this one. Despite Breivik obvious political motivations (like, he wrote them down) Stanley insists that these are the actions of a 'lone psychopath', and that any connection between his actions and his claimed motivations are entirely coincidental. His statement that "[t]he kind of person who can systematically shoot and kill that many people is mentally ill or possessed by demons" is helpful, because here 'mental illness' is performing exactly the same role that blaming things on demons does, a scapegoat that absolves us of responsibility[1. Stanley's attempt to dismiss his strawman notion that 'the left' thinks 'the right' is responsible for all anti-Islamic violence by equating it with the absurdity of the idea that 'the left' must be responsible for all anti-Christian violence is especially cruel given that many Christians would consider themselves to be on the left, and just the other year churchgoers in Tennessee were gunned down by a man with a hatred of liberals who name-checked several of the same people as Breivik. Also despite what he says links between Tea Party groups and white supremacists are alive and credible.]. Somehow these 'lone wolves' get the idea that the world would be a better place without certain groups and while maybe they're just picking ideas out of the aether, it is at least slightly possible that they are aided to these positions by reading the rhetoric of the people they say they're reading. While with the media platform issue there are at least clear steps that could be taken to reduce the problem, I'm not exactly sure what the solution is here. I do think there's some sort of moral duty incumbent on people not to make their careers spreading xenophobia and hate, but that's less because people might go out and shoot people and more because it's a generally shit thing to do. Melanie Phillips' response to finding two of her articles within his manifesto is revealing:

"The supposed beliefs of Norway massacre's perpetrator has got the left in general wetting itself in delirium at this apparently heaven-sent opportunity to take down those who fight for life, liberty and western civilisation against those who would destroy it."

I have vague sympathy here because Philips isn't actively fermenting armed revolution but to me safeguarding western civilisation is a cause that's probably worth killing for. If you're telling people the stakes are that high, can you really claim distance when people take you seriously? If having been repeatedly told by authority figures that your cause is literally the defence of western civilisation, you find yourself unable to effect the mainstream political process but know that you'll be given a world-wide platform if you commit a horrific act, why wouldn't it be rational to put your manifesto on the internet and go kill a bunch of kids? If the idea of 'killing innocents so more can be saved' is inherently crazy then there's a lot of foreign policy we need to revisit, and if killing full stop is a sign of deranged mind it's in even bigger trouble.

My point here is that you don't have to be crazy to be an extremist and you don't have to be crazy to kill people, either might be immoral but by themselves do not suggest anything about someone's sanity. It might yet turn out that Breivik is insane (his lawyer thinks he is, let's wait for the doctors) but should that happen it doesn't retrospectively improve the current rhetoric any more than if the attack had been carried out by al-Qaeda it would have made the initial coverage any less terrible - it simply means that that particular guess was correct and it's one rooted in prejudices and self-interest rather than reality.

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