Muslim “Terrorists,” White “Lone Wolves,” and the Lessons of Oslo

The key lesson from Oslo is that fear blinds, not just those who act on violent impulses but also those who bear witness to it. Americans should finally examine the ripple effects of political ideas with which they've grown dangerously comfortable.

By Michelle Chen Jul 27, 2011

Last week in Norway, comfortable illusions were shattered so suddenly that people around the world were left grasping for new ones. A nation known as a peaceful bastion of liberalism exploded in a convulsion of sheer hatred. And the reflexive media reaction that followed ricocheted between fear-mongering about Muslim violence to flaunting a uniquely American extremism.

Many corporate news media outlets are still trying to assemble a coherent narrative, but a few instructive lessons have emerged. The first is that they never learn. Once again, reporters seized on the Muslim terrorist meme in the minutes following the attack. The instant association of "terrorism" with Muslim or Arab has become standard practice even among established news outlets. 

Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada traced how one tweet from a supposed terrorist expert went viral following Anders Behring Breivik’s attack and swelled into a myth about "global jihad." Even after the misinformation became clear:

For hours after McCants posted the update that the claim of responsibility was retracted, BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him. The news was carried around the world and became the main story line in much of the initial coverage

The threshold for a terrorism expert must be very low. This whole rush to disseminate a false, unverifiable and flimsily sourced claim strikes me as a case of an elite fanboy wanting to be the first to pass on leaked gadget specs.

As the facts of Breivik’s ideology slowly broke through, mainstream news showed momentary compunction. But that emotion was quickly overtaken by a second and equally familiar theme in coverage of political violence: the often-deceptive "lone wolf" trope that threads through debates about domestic white supremacist movements. 

On one hand, the lone-wolf theory is refreshing in that it recognizes individuals can commit acts of terror even without the direction of an established group. But it also affords mainstream Americans a mental safe zone that detaches "the crazies" from more acceptable right-wing and racist currents in the public discourse. The failure to grasp the continuum of extremism creates self-enforcing ignorance, as seen in Homeland Security’s attempts to downplay the threat of militant right-wing groups amid pressure from conservatives.

True, extreme ideologies can’t be solely to blame for extreme violence. But curiously, that principle just doesn’t seem to apply to Muslim community leaders, constantly pressured to formally denounce every act that carries any suspicion of Islamic radicalism. The "lone wolf" concept doesn’t buffer European and American Muslims against the collective guilt that so many right-wingers gleefully impose on their religious identity.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald dissected the media’s conflation of religion, politics and terror in the coverage of Norway on corporate outlets:

[This] is what we’ve seen repeatedly: that Terrorism has no objective meaning and, at least in American political discourse, has come functionally to mean: violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes, no matter the cause or the target.  Indeed, in many (though not all) media circles, discussion of the Oslo attack quickly morphed from this is Terrorism (when it was believed Muslims did it) to no, this isn’t Terrorism, just extremism (once it became likely that Muslims didn’t).

The assumption is that Western Christian liberalism is incompatible with fundamentalist violence. But Frank Schaeffer points out the flip-side of those vaunted Western values:

There is a growing movement in America that equates godliness with hatred of our government in fact hatred of our country as fallen and evil because we allow women choice, gays to marry, have a social safety net, and allow immigration from other cultures and non-white races.

So how many more "lone wolves" will it take to force people to recognize a collective threat?

Another lesson we can pull from the wreckage in Oslo is that when those with the power to shape public opinion do learn, it’s typically too late. Though the Oslo attacks have spurred some news outlets to take a harder look at the rise of right-wing ideologies–and their violent offshoots–in the political establishment, evidence of this trend has been mounting quietly for years.

In the U.S., state and federal lawmakers have pandered to the right by directly targeting Muslim communities, most notably in Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim American extremism, and some have pushed fanatically absurd "anti-Sharia" legislation. In some European countries, the far right has ascended through political parties, capitalizing on widespread xenophobia and backlash against "multiculturalism."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, this political climate enables ultra-conservative activists like Pam Geller to inspire, from a distance, violent convulsions such as the Oslo attacks. Research director Heidi Beirich told Colorlines:

What Breivik did is, he sucked in this anti-Islam ideology–part of it from European organizations, some of it from the United States…. That kind of propaganda eventually gets to people who are willing to act on it. And that’s why it’s so irresponsible to be saying these things. Obviously, people like Pam Geller and Robert Spencer have freedom of speech rights. But at the end of the day, you have to think about, "Who is this influencing?" You constantly demonize a population, eventually they’re going to become a target of someone.

One such individual made himself known last week with stunning barbarity.

The key lesson from Oslo is that fear can and does blind, not just those who act on violent impulses but also those who bear witness to it. Maybe now some Americans might finally examine the ripple effects of political ideas with which they’ve grown dangerously comfortable over the past decade. When Norway’s tragedy put a crack in America’s mirrored walls of false security, we got a glimpse of something truly terrifying, something sheltered within.