I’ve been thinking about what, if anything, to write about the events in Norway. Obviously one’s first thoughts are with the victims of what was an especially horrible crime. I was in Oslo in April, and it really is hard for me to imagine an event such as this taking place there. Really dreadful and heartbreaking, especially since so many of the victims were young, committed, people who looked likely to make an important contribution to the life of their country.
I’m going to limit myself to a few thoughts on its wider significance. Obviously the killer is in some sense crazy, though whether that is technically true is a matter for the professionals. He was imbued with some version of an ideology which is widespread on the internet and to some extent in Western societies: nativism, extreme anxiety about Islam, hatred for liberal multiculturalist “enablers” of this, and so on. Ideas to be found on thousands of blogs, in the writings of wingnut columnists and neocons, in the shared beliefs of Tea Partiers and birthers, among the rabble of the English Defence League, and among the further fringes of extreme supporters of Israel. Is this fascist? I don’t think arguments about definitions are particularly useful. Some of this current predates 9/11, but in its current form it is a product of the US and global reaction to the attacks on the Word Trade Center. Plain and simple racist movements existed before 9/11, but this focus on a particular religion and its adherents coupled with the adoption of extreme pro-Zionism by the formerly anti-semitic right is something new. (This isn’t a single movement though, it is a spectrum, and elements of it have even been given cover, credibility and respectability by people who think of themselves as being on the left but who backed the Iraq war, strongly supported Israel over Lebanon and Gaza and who disseminate propaganda attacking those who take a different line to them on the Middle East as antisemitic racists.)
Following the Norway massacre many of the elite scribblers of this spectrum—many of whom have played the guilt-by-association game to the max over the last decade—are disclaiming all responsibility. Well, of course, they didn’t pull the trigger, but they helped to build an epistemic environment in which someone did. We may be, now, in the world that Cass Sunstein worried about, a world where people select themselves into groups which ramp up their more-or-less internally coherent belief systems into increasingly extreme forms by confirming to one another their perceived “truths” (about Islam, or Obama’s birth certificate, or whatever) and shutting out falsifying information. Put an unstable person or a person with a serious personality disorder into an environment like that and you have a formula for something very nasty happening somewhere, sooner or later. Horribly, that somewhere was Norway last Friday.