του Brendan O'Neill
When it was reported on Friday that there had been an explosion and an horrific mass shooting in Norway, many observers assumed that al-Qaeda or some other radical Islamist group had struck at the heart of peaceful Scandinavia. ‘Norway’s 9/11’, said the front page of theSun on Saturday, with the subheading: ‘“Al-Qaeda” massacre.’ Yet when it was revealed that the alleged bomber and shooter is a Norway-born, blonde-haired, farm-owning Aryan, observers quickly bought into the idea that we were faced with something very different from an al-Qaeda attack. This wasn’t ‘Norway’s 9/11’ after all, but something more akin to Columbine-on-steroids, a right-wing madman letting off steam in a most barbaric fashion. As one Norwegian police official put it: this was ‘probably more Norway’sOklahoma than its World Trade Centre’.
Yet this simplistic categorisation of contemporary terror assaults - where violent outbursts get slotted into files marked ‘Radical Islamist Fury’ or ‘Right-Wing Anger’ - makes too fine a distinction between acts that are actually very similar. Just because something like 7/7 in London was executed by men with dark hair and brown skin who claimed to be fighting on behalf of the Muslim ummah, while the bombing of Oslo and massacre on Utoya were carried out by a white guy who claimed to be protecting European Christian culture, that doesn’t mean these are diametrically different actions. What they have in common is far more important than what separates them. And, stripped of their pseudo-political garb, what unites today’s various terror tantrums, what makes these kind of people possible in the first place, is a very powerful culture of estrangement in modern society.
In much of the media, particularly amongst the respectable broadsheet press, there was a palpable sense of relief when it was revealed that the alleged killer is white with far-right tendencies. This means he is the kind of person we can unambiguously hate. Where Islamist terror attacks, from 9/11 to 7/7, induce in some liberal observers torn and tortured feelings, where they want to condemn the violence but also feel the need to explain it as a natural reaction to evil Western foreign policy, Anders Behring Breivik is someone they can despise in an uncomplicated way. This means that while the attacks may not be ‘Norway’s 9/11’, they could well be the cultural elite’s 9/11 - in the sense that this is an act which the influential liberal classes may seek to politicise in an opportunistic fashion, to make moral mileage out of, in the same way that the right did after 11 September 2001.
Indeed, it is striking the extent to which, post-Utoya, left-leaning observers are already adopting the role normally played by the right in the wake of Islamist terror attacks. That is, they’re ratcheting up the politics of fear, only over the rise of far-right violence rather than radical Islam, and are pinning the blame for these actions on ‘backward European attitudes’ in the same way the right pins the blame for Islamist terror on ‘backward Muslim culture’. So one liberal observer said, almost with a sense of glee, certainly relief, that the attacks in Norway show that the threat to modern society comes not from Muslims but from ‘the heart of darkness [that] lies buried deep within ourselves’, within the ‘white Nordic male’. He said the attacks highlighted xenophobic attitudes in Norway, ‘the rage with which Islamophobia is being spread’. Another commentator blamed the violence on Norway’s ‘racist demons’: ‘Many Norwegians don’t want their idyll spoiled, by either joining the EU, or by turning multicultural - and it is this nativist side of the country that
has now turned horrifyingly murderous.’
It is grotesque to depict Breivik as some kind of inevitable product of Norwegian culture, of the Norwegian people’s apparently ‘nativist’ and selfish attitudes. Such collective guilt-mongering, where one cold-blooded killer is seen as an expression of an entire people’s warped national traits, is just as objectionable as when elements on the right claim that something like 9/11 or 7/7 are the logical end results of backward Islam and the outlook of its billion-odd barmy adherents. What we are witnessing post-Norway is a PC exploitation of an act of terror. The prejudices of the right following Islamist terror attacks have been replaced by the equally problematic prejudices of the cultural elite. So all the chattering classes’ pet fears - from their belief that a great number of ordinary people in Europe are xenophobic to their hatred of anyone who is anti-EU (Norway has been slated for ‘not wanting to join the EU’) - are starting to get an airing on the back of these violent assaults. Where the right blames isolated acts of al-Qaeda terror on Islam, the cultural elite blames an isolated act of right-wing terror on ‘raging’ Islamophobia. But is it really any more progressive to locate the origins of modern terrorism in the apparently backward beliefs of the white European hordes than it is to find it in the strange habits of the brown Muslim mob?
The speedy moralisation of the Norway attacks, the shameless liberal aping of what the right does after Islamist assaults, suggests that the political classes’ primary instinct post-terror is to score points. Because if they were to put aside their already-existing prejudices and look at modern-day terror tantrums in a cool-headed fashion, they would surely note that there is not that much difference between what Breivik did in Norway on Friday and what Mohamed Atta did in New York on 9/11 or what Mohammad Sidique Khan did in London on 7/7. All of these terror attacks, executed by educated and not poor young men, seem driven by an extreme sense of estrangement. Indeed, for all of Breivik’s rambling complaintsabout multiculturalism, where he allegedly declared war against that political ideology and its ‘cultural Marxist’ cheerleaders, the most striking thing is how much his outlook, like that of the 7/7 attackers, seems to have been moulded by the estrangement-inducing politics of multiculturalism.
Some commentators, including us at spiked, have argued that acts such as 7/7 are more an extreme expression of the multicultural outlook than they are a traditional form of Islamic fundamentalism. Multiculturalism’s celebration of identity over solidarity, its promotion of the politics of self-pity and victimhood, of a perception that minority identities are continually under threat from the post-colonial and xenophobic attitudes of both society’s rulers and its native masses, found its most fanatical expression in the London bombings. In the bombers’ extraordinary levels of self-pity, combined with their arrogant belief that their Muslim identity gave them the right to hector the British throng, we got a glimpse of how far the multicultural ethos can be pushed. Breivik, for all his anti-multicultural pretensions, is not that different. Indeed, it is remarkable how much his so-called critique of multiculturalism seems bound by the parameters of multiculturalism itself.
In his claim that he wanted to protect ‘white Christian identity’from being overrun and crushed by an external powerful force - in this case Muslim immigrants - Breivik is merely indulging in an alternative form of multiculturalism. In different ways, both the 7/7 bombers and Breivik express the same sense of cultural paranoia, of cultural siege and victimhood. In recent years the right-wing critique of multiculturalism has ironically been shaped by the ethos of multiculturalism itself. From the English Defence League (which Breivik apparently had contact with) to authors who fret about Muslim immigration into Europe, there has been an attempt by right-wing elements to transform whiteness and Christianess into threatened identities, under siege from an almost colonialist tidal wave of Otherness. This sounds remarkably similar to the outlook of radical Islamists. Both groups accentuate and advertise their victim status and effectively compete for the respect of the overlords of identity-management in the multiculturalist elite. Where right-wingers warn of the rise of ‘Eurabia’, Islamists fret about the return of Christian crusaders; where right-wing activists claim their ‘white identity’ is not being accorded respect, Islamists claim their ‘Muslim identity’ is treated badly. The outlook of both groups is informed very powerfully by the victimology and craving for recognition inherent in multiculturalism.
Breivik’s alleged hatred of multiculturalism actually seems to be driven by a belief that it does not sufficiently respect his cultural identity; his violent act can be seen as a crazy, barbaric attempt to expand the remit of the politics of multiculturalism. (This is not to argue, by the way, that the EDL or anti-immigration thinkers bear any responsibility for Breivik’s violence. They do not.)
What ties something like 7/7 to the Norway attacks is today’s specific culture of estrangement. The nurturing of cultural particularism, the promotion of self-obsession over socialisation, of individual identity over collective citizenship, can create a sometimes volatile atmosphere. It can give rise to social envy, identity-based competition, a profound sense of cultural disconnection. Modern terrorism looks like the most extreme expression of these problems. Indeed, for all their grand political talk, it is notable that both the 7/7 cell and Breivik launched attacks, not against their alleged enemies (Western imperialists and Muslim crusaders respectively), but against the everyday inhabitants of their own societies. Theirs is a haughty violence of estranged rage, rather than anything to do with traditional political outlooks. Their tantrums have more in common with the outlook of Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, though on a far more terrifying scale, than they do with the politics of the past.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.