Friday, August 5, 2011

Terrorism or Narcissism? Understanding "Root Causes"

A friend in Turkey writes to ask about the meaning of the word "terrorism," vis-a-vis the awful massacre in Norway last month:

If the person who killed 100+ people in Norway were Muslim, the Press would have declared him as a terrorist. For now though, he is just an 'Assailant ', 'Attacker' (Reuters), 'Gunman' (BBC, CNN & Al Jazeera). Looks like 'Terrorist ' is a name reserved for Muslims? The US Dept of State calls it… an 'Act of Violence', Not an 'Act of Terrorism'. What're you thinking about this??

Here's my reply to my friend:

I agree that there could be some racism involved in these discussions--Norway does not have a spotless record in the 20th century, as Europe in general doesn't--but not much in this case, I think. That is not the main issue concerning how the killer's actions are being categorized.

Much more important is that it appears the assailant was/is a madman (mentally ill). Terrorists are evil-doers, but they are typically not insane, and the clinically demented (even mass murderers) are not normally counted as terrorists. There are right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim extremist groups in Europe, of course. And they are dreadful. But they are not very significant, do not have much support, are not well organized--and so far have not undertaken the kind of systematic terror campaigns that groups like Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others have engaged in for decades.

Neither do you see anyone dancing in the streets, celebrating the violence in Norway--as we witnessed in some places after 9/11. This time nobody is expressing support for the "martyr's" cause--the way many supported Bin Laden, or at least professed an "understanding" of the "root causes" of his actions
, and continue to aid groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, et al.

So far as I know, this schmuck murderer, Anders Breivik, was a lone nut case--his tragic deed therefore, in my opinion, was even more pointless than terrorism (which is saying something). Imagine by contrast if he were part of an organized group that took credit for the act, and promised more to come--then it would be terrorism, and everyone would support eliminating such a group and its networks.

No Such Thing as Islamophobia

Political scientist and far-left public intellectual, Corey Robin (, thinks Anders Breivik's reading of the "conservative canon" helped shape the killer's reactionary mind. Robin even suspects--if I catch the insinuation--that the nutty Norwegian's dreadful rampage might be attributable to all that disreputable bookwormin', spiked with a dose of "Islamophobia."

My response to this is, huh? Acknowledging that Breivik, author of a 1500 page manifesto, might wish to see himself as a political philosopher, are we supposed to take him at his word? In fact, his mind seems to have been cast as much in the mold of such canonical ("conservative"?) thinkers as the Unabomber as anything else.

Here (below) is Robin's original post of July 24th, from his blog, followed by my view of it, which I posted there in reply. We agree that Islamophobia doesn't seem like a satisfactory explanation in this case. But I doubt the missing puzzle piece is to be found in a close-reading of Hayek, and, furthermore, question the salience of the concept of Islamophobia that Professor Robin--like many others--embraces. Finally, I direct interested readers to Alan Johnson's latest World Affairs column, where Breivik is diagnosed as a "radical loser" (see below).

So! Anders Breivik. Right-wing intellectual manque? Narcissistic nutbag, a la De Niro's character in Taxi Driver? Or just another loser coughed-up by cyberspace? You be the judge...

Robinsky: Anders Behring Breivik, the guy who’s confessed to the Norwegian terrorist bombings, doesn’t just have ideas about multiculturalism and Muslim immigration (in case you haven’t heard, he’s not crazy about either)—though you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage, which focuses almost exclusively on Breivik’s identitarian interests. Breivik also has a fair amount to say about capitalism and its critics. In his lengthy manifesto, he proffers opinions about Naomi Klein (dislikes) and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (likes). He also seems more than passingly familiar with some of the leading figures of conservative thought like Roger Scruton. I haven’t had time to immerse myself in Breivik’s statement—it’s 1500 pages!—but from the bits I’ve read, it’s clear that there’s more here than Islamophobia.

Brahmsky: I’m not sure how noting that Breivik prefers the rather interesting Scruton to the rather dull N. Klein (a lot of people do) is supposed to help explain his demented outburst. I’d say that much is to his credit. The Underground Man has always been an avid reader, but surely that in itself was never what’s wrong with him.

I think you’re right though to suggest that "Islamophobia" doesn’t cover it. I’d be more open to that over-hyped notion if he’d targeted Muslims (a), and (b) if he’d done so because of some widespread, culturally ingrained, deep-seated animus of longstanding that expressed itself as loathing for Islam per se. Qualms about immigration, doubts about multiculturalism, or anxiety over the threat of mass-murder terrorism can all be legitimate or illegitimate (fairly reasonable or grossly exaggerated), it seems to me, and can surely be expressed in legitimate or illegitimate ways.

Calling all this what it is–various forms of uneasiness pertaining to relatively concrete circumstances of fairly recent vintage–rather than inventing another essentializing pathology (how many sorts of "-phobia" can the Western subject reasonably be imagined to harbor within itself?) for college students and their timidly, ingenuously PC teachers to check themselves for, confess to, and police the ubiquitous signs of, won’t excuse those who get carried away by events in little (Juan Williams) or big ways (Breivik).

To stress one of the salient differences between an honest journalist, however, and Norway’s newest Travis Bickle (did you see some of those kitsch poses/outfits? I could almost hear him saying "You talkin’ to me?" in Norwegian) Breivik just seems crazy to me (unlike most terrorists, who, of course, are evil-doers but not crazy). Granted, I’m not a medical doctor…

Or, maybe he’s just a "radical loser," as social theorist and leading British public intellectual of the "vital center," Alan Johnson, persuasively argues,