Oslo vs Tuscan: Asymmetric Reactions
Jul 27, 2011

Oslo vs Tuscan: Asymmetric Reactions

When Jared Loughner shot dead six people in Tuscan in an attempted murder of congresswoman Gabby Giffords, there was several interesting reactions outside of the obviously deserved expressions of sympathy and horror at the tragedy. It is worth comparing these reactions to the reactions from the recent horrific bombing and shootings in Oslo, Norway. Often what is not said is more interesting than what is said.

Post Tuscan, there was a predictable reaction which used the tragedy as a vindication of their own political opinions. As the details about Jared Loughner's mentality and opinions emerged, people took elements of his writing and favorite books to be indicative of him being on the opposing political side. For the right, the fact that he listed the Communist Manifesto was evidence of Loughner being a far left fundamentalist. The many loosely anti-government positions he took were embraced by the left as indication that he was some far right crazy. While the latter is probably more correct, any reasonable interpretation of his writings demonstrates someone very much outside of most people's understanding of the political spectrum. Regardless, it should be trivial that the actions of one person, crazy or otherwise, do not lend credence to ones own political views one iota. Yet we are quick to identify such easy villains as being somehow representative of the "other side".

As the evidence mounted of Loughner's views being vaguely related to some concepts expressed on the right, a powerful meme rose that started to shift blame to people like Sarah Palin and Glen Beck. Much was made, for instance, of a map released by SarahPAC showing gunsight targets over various politicians including Gifford's district. The idea was that the violent, gun toting political rhetoric expressed by elements in the right contributed to the shooting. As it turns out, there is zero indication that Loughner followed either Beck or Palin; in fact he expressed considerable resentment of such political/media figures in general. This sparked a larger debate where one might argue for a more nuanced idea that doesn't associate direct causality but maintains the rhetoric is bad for its own sake and contributes to political culture conducive for extremists to find cause for violence. In response, the right tried as hard as possible to distance itself itself as being related in any way to Loughner and portraying him, largely correctly, as merely a crazy wackjob.

If there was anything of value to come from this horrific tragedy, it was in sparking a national conversation about the appropriate role of violent rhetoric in politics. It is hard to judge, but I think it might be true that some of the more egregious rhetoric has actually tempered just a bit post Tuscan and post the debate about Tuscan. Personally, I believe that this debate should occur regardless of any violent incident and that in some ways talking about it only after a violent event is putting too much emphasis on an implied causality between the rhetoric and the event. What is fair to say is that ideas exist as memes in our culture and those that contribute to the perpetuation and strengthening of those ideas should be, at least, cognizant of the fact that others may take those ideas as justification for violent extremes even if we ourselves would never do that. Most of the downsides of these ideas are bad in and of themselves and not because of a slippery slope to violent extremism. Should such a slippery slope be occasionally realized it may spark a national conversation but the emphasis should be on how, say, violent rhetoric is bad in and of itself and not just because of how it (might) lead to violent extremism.

Turning to the Oslo bombing and shootings, parts of this reaction has been repeated and parts have not. Initially, despite essentially zero evidence, it was portrayed as being an Islamic Extremist and this meme spread like rapidfire. We then learned that Anders Breivik was in fact staunchly anti-Muslim thereby directly challenging the preconceived notions of the very word "terrorism" which has all to often been, inaccurately, equated with specifically Islamic terrorism. The reaction was so poignantly self-righteous in condemning not just the action but briefly started to channel all of the bigotry and Islamophobia I am forced to condemn time and again on this blog. It might have been reasonable to think that when we found out the real source was itself Islamophobic that there would be a huge backlash against all aspects of culture that might touch on this views - as there was from the left against the right post Tuscan - but it has not seemed to manifest itself.

As someone who frequently laments Islamaphobia, it is tempting to see this as a vindication of my positions. Such in-group/out-group thinking is very bad in and of itself and leads to all kinds of problems from minor discrimination all the way up to being a basis for terrorism such as Oslo. Reading some of his writings (which were surprisingly lucid, incidentally), were not significantly more or less "crazy" than many others I have seen on the Internet; take, for example, the comments left on this blog in a previous post. Of course, there is no causal link between thinking or expressing anti-Muslim sentiment and violent extremism, but one absolutely is contributing to the perpetuating and strengthening of these meme which is damaging in many more ways than simply the occasional fringe violent actor.

If there were to have been a little something of value to come from the tragic Oslo shootings, it would be to spark a robust discussion of the pervasive nature of anti-Muslim sentiment in our societies and how it is so very bad, much as a discussion about violent gun rhetoric was sparked in the US after the Tuscan shootings. I would disagree with any causal implications, but I would strongly approve of the need for such a discussion. Yet it appears to be minimal at best. To be fair, there is significant negative attention at the select few very hateful blogs that were given large amounts of quotes by Anders Breivik. Good. But what is lacking is the wider dialogue on Islamophobia in general and its pervasive nature in society.

My speculation as to the reason for this is that it is sign in our society where generically anti-Muslim sentiment is simply more latent and accepted than other forms of expression. Issues like the use of terrorism being asymmetrically identified as something Islamic show this (despite EU studies demonstrating how of the hundreds of terrorists incidents per year in Europe only a handful and sometimes zero per year are Islamic). In the Tuscan case, there is already a strong anti-gun sentiment latent in a subset of the population and so it was natural the left would strongly identify the gun rhetoric as a problem. There is not, however, a large anti-Islamophobia movement and hence despite this being such a poignant opportunity to seed such a discussion it was largely absent.

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