The Null Device
Recently, a right-wing extremist massacred close to 100 people in Norway, first setting a remotely detonated car bomb near government offices in Oslo. Then, as police combed through the wreckage, he made his way to the nearby island of Utøya, where the Labour Party's youth wing were having a camp, attired in a police uniform. For an hour or two, he roamed the island, gunning down teenagers as if in a video game, only surrendering when the police arrived.
This post is not so much about the events as they happened (there is no point in picking over the gruesome details of an atrocity), nor about the murderer's political beliefs and agenda (which should be regarded with the contempt they deserve, and not dignified with a place in the arena of debate), but rather about the media response; in particular, the immediate assumption, and wild speculation, that the massacre was the work of Islamic terrorist groups. From the first reports of the explosion, there was an immediate flurry of speculation: why are the Muslims attacking Norway (is it support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process? reprinting of Danish newspaper cartoons? Or just because nobody expects an attack on Norway?) Even when reports came in of a gunman attacking a Labour Party camp, the media didn't twig to the fact that, from the point of view of al-Qaeda-style jihadists, restricting one's attacks to one political faction of infidels rather than going for maximum carnage made little sense, and that it looked more like the motive of some kind of neo-Nazi or far-right group.
The Murdoch empire, bloodied but unbowed by its recent lapse of control over Britain's (and possibly America's) political establishment, led the charge, not unlike the corpse of El Cid lashed to his horse. The Sun quickly rushed out a front page blaming al-Qaeda, though then hurriedly pulped it when the facts came in. Not to be outdone, on the other side of the Atlantic where they do things differently, Fox News played true to character, announcing that the massacre was the first incident of non-Islamic terrorism since 1995. Terrorism, you see, is a pathology peculiar to the foul Mohammedans, or at least to threatening-looking brown-skinned people who eat funny-smelling food.
Meanwhile, as the details of the murderer's beliefs emerged, so did an entirely different picture. Rather than the work of the Islamic other, the atrocity was the result of a pathological reaction against the fear of the other. The murderer turned out to be a right-wing psychopath, who set out to strike at the "cultural Marxists" (a term used by the far right to apply to anything they find disagreeable, from feminism to bad posture). He styled himself, presumably for purposes of expediency, as a Christian Fundamentalist (though claimed in his manifesto the particularly Randian view that religion is a crutch for the weak) and cultivated ties with contemporary far-right groups such as the English Defence League and the US Tea Party, as well as other anti-Muslim hate groups. (Ironically enough, he also expressed staunchly pro-Israeli opinions; I say ironically, because chances are, had he been born ten years earlier, he'd probably have been more likely to have been fire-bombing synagogues than supporting a Jewish anything. After all, the position occupied by the Muslim in the demonology of the European/American far right was, well within living memory, occupied by the Jew. In reality, of course, the Other is a McGuffin; it doesn't matter what name they go by or whether anyone has met one, as long as there is something sufficiently different to hate and fear.) Incidentally, his manifesto approvingly quoted Tory bully-boy humorist Jeremy Clarkson; make of that what you will.
Meanwhile, here is Glenn Greenwald's examination of the "terrorists-are-Muslims" subtext in news reports:
That Terrorism means nothing more than violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes has been proven repeatedly. When an airplane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, it was immediately proclaimed to be Terrorism, until it was revealed that the attacker was a white, non-Muslim, American anti-tax advocate with a series of domestic political grievances. The U.S. and its allies can, by definition, never commit Terrorism even when it is beyond question that the purpose of their violence is to terrorize civilian populations into submission. Conversely, Muslims who attack purely military targets -- even if the target is an invading army in their own countries -- are, by definition, Terrorists. That is why, as NYU's Remi Brulin has extensively documented, Terrorism is the most meaningless, and therefore the most manipulated, word in the English language. Yesterday provided yet another sterling example.And here is Charlie Brooker's take; somewhat more solemn than his usual column, though no less incisive.