The law enforcement entities dealing with the appalling massacre in and around Oslo last Friday have been understandably preoccupied with the question, did the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, act alone. That is an important question for them, but it does nothing to help the rest of us understand and respond to this tragedy.
Let us assume that he acted alone, in the legal sense that unlike Timothy Mc Veigh of the Oklahoma City bombing he did not have accomplices. Acting alone does not mean that he acted in a vacuum. Thus we have to understand the climate in which he thought and acted. Just imagine if the media were asking instead, or in addition:
- What is being done to reduce messages in the surrounding culture that are known to predispose a person to act out in rage?
- What is the official discourse saying or doing to counteract this pressure?
- What are we doing to raise awareness about nonviolent alternatives to retribution and security?
- What are we doing to reduce hatred within and among people?
- What are we doing to prevent weapons and knowledge of their use from being readily available and normalized?
- What are we doing to show that these acts are not “senseless” but can be understood and prevented in very large measure—without employing the violence that further instigates them?
- What kind of reporting is happening to make people feel safer and to show an image of the human being that is not selfish, violent, enraged and murderous?
- What are we doing to educate people against far-right “Christian” extremism?
- What are we doing to inspire people to imagine a future better than violence?
- What will we learn from this tragedy?
Right now, the answer to all of these questions would be, basically nothing. And that does not bode well for our security.
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Once Breivik was in custody it very soon came to light that he is a right-wing extremist “Christian” obsessed with the “danger” of Islam, and as such part of a growing trans-European movement. The most interesting feature of this movement–and here the press must be credited for pointing it out–are the uncanny similarities (uncanny if you don’t know how violence works) between the rhetoric of a manifesto he authored and/or signed and that of his opposite number, Osama bin Laden, even down to referencing the Crusades, though of course from opposite viewpoints. Apparently fundamentalisms have more in common with each other than they have with the discourse of rational people on their respective “sides.” There is no question that since 9/11 the “war on terror” meme has become the dominating mythology–I use the word advisedly–that has kept us in a posture of indefinite warfare–and that this posture perpetuates the very dangers we are seeking to avoid.
Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton stepped into this trap when she lost no time declaring, before the identity of the perpetrator was even known, that “We must…bring [them] to justice” — the rhetoric of the war on terror. We know, unfortunately, what “justice” means in this setting, because we saw what it means just recently in the murder of Osama bin Laden. It means unvarnished vengeance, and thus a guarantee that the cycle of violence will continue. As a U.S. commander said in Iraq a year ago, “We are making terrorists faster than we can kill them.” Does this sound like security to you?
But when we speak of a climate in which Breivik and others like him are operating, we must recognize that it has an even deeper cause than the reciprocal terrorisms invoked by the “war.”
Violence has, to bring in an analogy from science, a ‘background count.’ From the early days of nuclear science Geiger counters were used to record the level of radioactivity in a given area. To know how much ionizing radiation an object is giving off one has to subtract the amount that the device is picking up from the surrounding environment. Similarly, hate has a background count. And it’s getting worse. Notice the changing affiliations in the trans-European xenophobia — at first they supported Islamists against Jews, further back that they supported Communist Russia against China, and then switched. This shows that the underlying motive is unspecific hate.
Why aren’t we asking, “Who or what is creating an atmosphere of egotism and hate in our culture?” Unfortunately, because we already know the answer, and do not want to hear it. Social scientists from every relevant discipline have been telling us for decades that the worsening parade of violent imagery in our mass media definitely and inevitably produces more violent mind-sets and thus more violent behaviors. To try to piece together the motivations of a deranged person — which, along with trivial details like the number of shots fired, etc., is often the preoccupation of the media — is an exercise in futility. Deranged minds are by definition beyond the reach of reason. But that does not mean we cannot understand what’s driving them — or do anything about it. Terrorism across the board would go down to the extent that the pervasive dehumanizing imagery of the commercial mass media would go down. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has shown that the very same video games used to prime Army recruits to shed their inhibitions against killing are the ones being pulled off the shelves of game stores by young people everywhere. Any one of us who persuades a child not to buy such games and him or herself abstains from patronizing violent television, games and movies — I realize this means almost all of it — will be showing the way to reduce terrorism.
So while we recoil in horror from what Breivik did and how he thinks, we have to realize that our culture provided him with the mind-set (including a low image of human life), the weapons, and a convenient ideology. It would be sheer hypocrisy to neglect these causes of the problem — and dangerous folly.
Terrorism of this particular kind — xenophobic fundamentalism under cover of religion — would go down if we stop electing leaders who rely on it for their popularity. Terrorism itself, in any stripe (and yes, I am among those who include war) would go down if we would turn our backs resolutely on the ‘entertainment’ and other forms that rely on violence for their popularity. This gets us down at last to the real issue.
Germany’s Angela Merkel did rather better than our Secretary of State in calling on us to “unite against hatred.” We can do this. Our institute, the Metta Center for Nonviolence, has launched Love Your Enemy: a Campaign to Reclaim Human Dignity Through Nonviolence. It is our contribution toward counteracting both the discourse of Islamophobia and the underlying acceptance of violence. We invite you to join us.
In any case, we can all raise the issues outlined above and act on them even if — or especially because — our political figures and the official discourse of the media apparently never will. Our children expect nothing less. If we want to give them a secure world, we really have no other way.