Filed under: Peace, War on Terror | Tags: "Anders Behring Breivik", "Collective Responsability", Norway, Oslo, Terrorism
Over the weekend, I posted the following message on Twitter: “When a Muslim commits terror, every Muslim in the world somehow shares responsibility. When it’s a white Christian, he’s always a lone wolf.” I wasn’t commenting on the tendency of commentators to use different words to describe the same vicious act, such as using the word terrorism to only describe violence perpetrated by Muslims, (or how post-Hurricane Katrina looting was referred to “finding” when whites were involved) but rather, trying to express my frustration with scapegoating tendency to assign collective blame: the idea that one person’s crimes/sins can in anyway be partly blamed on those who didn’t commit, endorse, fund, or encourage the nefarious act.
Collective blame was the curse of the 20th century. It inflicted untold carnage on hundreds of millions of people and it has no place in the modern world. But it persists, partly, I think, because it’s a reflex among people who feel vulnerable or fear some sort of inferiority to rationalize that those whom they perceive to be their enemies all agree on the same basic evil ideas. When some fanatical Muslim blows himself up in a crowded market, those who already feel uncomfortable about the presence of Muslims in their countries rationalize that all the Muslims – regardless of who they are and what they do – are somehow culpable in the act. The silence from Muslims, many of these people will tell you, means that they tacitly endorse terrorism. These are the same sorts of people who will tell you that a Muslim in, say, Utah has to specifically denounce every act of violence committed by a fellow Muslim somewhere else on the other side of the globe. It’s nonsense, but the simple thinking behind it makes it difficult to combat.
And it isn’t just Muslims who are on the receiving end of the illogical practice of placing collective blame. It’s pretty widespread. For instance, when an Israeli soldier mistreats a Palestinian, you won’t be shocked to hear some commentator placing the blame on all Israelis or even all Jews. In every case, a very broad demographic category is used to indict millions (or billions) for the sins of the few people who committed the particular act.
Either way you slice it and dice it, collective blame is wrong. As Slate’s William Saletan writes, “That principle—that no one should be held responsible for another person’s sins—is the moral core of the struggle against terrorism.” I couldn’t agree more.
Which is why I was surprised by the reaction I got. For whatever reason, the tweet took off and people from all around the world started sharing it with their networks. I don’t know how or why it happened, but it did and as I am writing this, the message was shared more than 5650 times. At first, I was astonished by all the attention my message was getting. But that feeling was soon overtaken by the surprise that people actually objected to what I had written, which I believe to be largely uncontroversial. The statement is nothing more than an uninsightful observation. The response I was expecting was for people to say, “Yeah, well, duh.” Instead, people argued that Muslims were responsible for the crimes of coreligionists that they didn’t know or whose views they didn’t support. Some even read it as if I was arguing that collective blame should be placed on whites for the sins/crimes of other whites rather than what I was actually saying, which was that collective blame in all is not right in any circumstance.
What prompted my message, of course, was last week’s massacre in Norway. On Friday, a man detonated a massive bomb in downtown Oslo and massacred scores of teenagers on the tiny Norwegian island of Utoya. When news first broke here in the United States, it was described as an act carried out by terrorists. When it was discovered that the attacker’s ideology was, as the Economist notes, “a form of reactionary Christian fundamentalism, fuelled by hatred of Islam, Marxism and non-whites,” the perpetrator started being described not as a terrorist but as a “lone wolf.”
I’m not one to get into the discussion about what word should or should not be used. Clearly, when people talk about terrorism, they are talking about a specific act that has an intended political motive. A mass shooting, such as the Virginia Tech massacre, clearly doesn’t fall into the same category as an attack on an embassy that was intended to terrorize people into implementing some sort of change. Some acts of violence have terror motives and others just simply don’t. But it’s a good discussion to have and Glenn Greenwald offers some perceptive criticism of the way the word terrorism is, and isn’t, used. That being said, Breivik’s actions were clearly terroristic and politically/ideologically motivated.
Breivik’s manifesto copiously cites some of the most nefarious Muslim-baiters here in the United States. As such, there has been a healthy debate about what impact these people – who literally devote their entire lives to writing about the very things that Breivik sought to bring to a halt: the so-called “Islamization” of the West and the loss of Western culture to Arabs and other foreigners – had on Breivik. As the New York Times explained, “The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.”
These people are now on the defensive and are pushing back against any suggestion that their years of fear-mongering about how the political left is allowing Europe to be overtaken by bearded religious zealots had anything to do with the motives of a guy who attacked the Norwegian left for what he received as their willingness to let the country be overtaken by bearded religious zealots. They had nothing to do with the motives of the terrorist, they charge, because they don’t condone violence and are all about peace. Any attempt to link them to Breivik is part of an agenda to silence their loud voices, they complain.
That defense is natural. People who didn’t commit a specific crime quite naturally object to being associated with it. But remember, these are the same people whose existence is defined by the very exact same thing they now denounce: collective blame. They don’t want to be associated with someone who clearly shared almost all of their views. But they have absolutely no problem making the charge that Muslims in the United States are somehow linked to each and every single act of terrorism that occurs, anywhere in the world.
What they now demand of the public is something that they viciously deny Muslims, and in particular, American Muslims, some of whom have never set foot in another country, let alone the Middle East. As Adam Serwer observes, “While it’s obvious that few if any of them will take this lesson to heart, the rest of us should — terrorist acts are committed by individuals, and it is those individuals who should be held responsible.”
But that sort of humane treatment and respect, some of the Muslim-baiters seem to contend, is only for them.