It's The Scapegoating, Stupid: Why Extreme Right-wing Ideology So Often Inspires Acts Of Violence

Much as folks on the Right seem eager to dismiss the murderous rampage of Norwegian domestic terrorist Anders Breivik as yet another "isolated incident" involving someone who was mentally unstable, a lone wolf whose views had nothing to do with

Much as folks on the Right seem eager to dismiss the murderous rampage of Norwegian domestic terrorist Anders Breivik as yet another "isolated incident" involving someone who was mentally unstable, a lone wolf whose views had nothing to do with his violent act -- after all, it worked so well in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting -- the story is not going to go away so readily.

First, there's the news that Breivik says there are still "two cells" in his organization out there. So the terrorism may not be over and done with just yet.

Moreover, as we sift through the discernible facts about Breivik and his motives for embarking on a murderous rampage, it's becoming increasingly evident that he was an ardent right-winger -- but decidedly not a neo-Nazi or any other kind of fascist. Breivik did not belong to any overtly racist, white supremacist or anti-Semitic organizations.

Breivik's only known political affiliation is with the Progress Party, which is functionally Norway's version of the Tea Party. Indeed, Tea Party heavyweight Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity spoke at the Progress Party's national convention in Oslo last fall. (It would be interesting to determine if Breivik was in attendance; hopefully, some enterprising Norwegian journalist will look into it.)

This has produced some interesting commentary from the sane world, and a frantic scramble among right-wingers eager to distance themselves from this madman. In the New York Times, Scott Shane reported on the significance of Breivik's right-wing politics in inspiring his rampage -- and how the sources of that inspiration included supposedly mainstream conservatives:

His manifesto, which denounced Norwegian politicians as failing to defend the country from Islamic influence, quoted Robert Spencer, who operates the Jihad Watch Web site, 64 times, and cited other Western writers who shared his view that Muslim immigrants pose a grave danger to Western culture.

More broadly, the mass killings in Norway, with their echo of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by an antigovernment militant, have focused new attention around the world on the subculture of anti-Muslim bloggers and right-wing activists and renewed a debate over the focus of counterterrorism efforts.

... Mr. Breivik frequently cited another blog, Atlas Shrugs, and recommended the Gates of Vienna among Web sites. Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of Islam who runs Atlas Shrugs, wrote on her blog Sunday that any assertion that she or other antijihad writers bore any responsibility for Mr. Breivik’s actions was “ridiculous.”

“If anyone incited him to violence, it was Islamic supremacists,” she wrote.

At the Atlantic, Joshua Foust tried his hand at a bit of sophistry to see if the culpability for Breivik could be scrubbed away from his political cohorts and the like-minded:

Behavior, ultimately, is a product of one's environment: ideas, yes, but also social pressure, family pressure, norms, constraints, inspirations, barriers, and expectations. Sometimes, these constraints push a man to do any number of heinous things. It doesn't excuse the man himself (at the end of the day, you always have the choice and the responsibility not to react to your circumstances violently), but it makes the question of "why" terribly difficult to understand. It is deeply complex.

Focusing only on Breivik's words, as the commentariat has done this weekend, is not just hypocrisy, it misses the point. Breivik wanted us to focus on his words -- in a way, his disgusting butchery was meant to advertise his writing. We owe his victims better than that, better than playing his game. Breivik the man was more than a book-length rant on race politics. He was the product of his own environment, one we have not even begun to understand. Moving from rhetoric into action is really difficult, and it happens for reasons we just don't understand. To really answer the question of why Breivik committed such atrocity, we have to move beyond his politics and his carefully placed manifesto. Anything less would be a disservice to the children he so ruthlessly murdered.

We commend Foust for his high principle, but we have a feeling that such complexity would not be admitted if the perpetrators had turned out to be Muslim. Certainly it is rare to see such considerations be applied to Islamic radicals. Rather, what happens uniformly among the "anti-jihadist" crowd (particularly Geller, Spencer, et. al.) is that they readily leap to condemn all of Islam for the acts of a few radicals whose motivations, indeed, are never considered "beyond their politics".

Indeed, the scramble among right-wing pundits to come up with some kind of decent rationale that will let them talk about Breivik -- or better yet, blame liberals or Muslims for him -- is on, as Media Matters reports. Over at Red State, a regular contributor tied Breivik's attack to the pro-choice movement and end-of-life issues. Then there's the post over at Breitbart's "Big Peace" site titled "Anders Behring Breivik: Jihadist":

This Norwegian terrorist was not a Christian or a conservative. He acted contrary to the teachings of the Bible and conservatives from Burke to Madison. He was instead a jihadist, blinded by an ideology who resorted to violence rather than engaging in a public debate of ideas. He was a coward who planted bombs and killed innocent people. For him, violence was the only answer. He claimed to be fighting jihadists...but he actually became one. He didn't kill one islamist [sic] terrorist with his actions-only innocent Norwegians. Change the location, and he acted like so many jihadists in the Middle East. He became one of them.

In a way, he's actually onto something, a reality that right-wingers themselves don't ever admit: Islamic radicals are themselves fundamentally right-wing ultra-conservatives in their orientation. They are devout anti-modernists who despise all things liberal. They have far more in common, in terms of their personal psychological orientations, with the anti-immigration radicals who dominate the modern Right, both in Europe and in the USA.

This is why you can put together a map of violent incidents over the past three years involving right-wing extremists in the USA and come up with 24 of them and counting, but you can't even begin to do the same with left-wing extremists because the map would be blank.

Let's be clear: Initially at least -- until it becomes condoned -- it is only a tiny subset of these movements that is ultimately inspired to violent action like this. The real question to ponder is: Why are right-wing movements so attractive to people who eventually act out violently?

This is an issue that is brilliantly illuminated by the case of Shawna Forde, the erstwhile Minuteman group leader who wound up overseeing the murders of a 9-year-old-girl and her father in Arizona:

The people who broke into her home late at night while she was sleeping with her new puppy on the living-room couch and cold-bloodedly shot her in the face while she pleaded for her life were people who did not see her, or her father or mother, as human beings. They were people who had become so accustomed to dehumanizing Latinos that they didn't care about the devastation they brought to Arivaca and the lives of this family. They were so consumed by hate that they had no humanity left themselves.

The dehumanizing language of scapegoating and eliminationism -- the naming and targeting of other humans for the supposed social ills they incur, followed as always by words urging their excision from society, if not the world -- is endemic on the American Right. And among right-wing extremists, it intensifies, grows and metastasizes into something lethal and monstrous.

One of the early and most sustainable critiques of the Minutemen was that they were doomed to descend into violence because -- while adamantly and angrily denying that they were themselves racist, and "screened" out any such influences -- their scapegoating rhetoric attracted serious numbers of people who were functionally sociopathic and violent. Shawna Forde -- a woman with an abusive upbringing, a former petty criminal and hooker who liked to tout herself as a music promoter -- was attracted to the Minutemen, and rose high within their ranks, precisely because she was attracted to dehumanizing rhetoric that scapegoated specific targets to blame for their own lousy lives. And she became the manifestation of that.

Right-wing movements attract people who are likely to act out violently because they indulge so overtly and, in recent years, remorselessly in the politics of fear and loathing: indulging in eliminationist rhetoric, depicting their opposition as less than human, and aggressively attacking efforts to blunt the toxic effects of their politics as "political correctness" -- or, in the case of both Anders Breivik and Andrew Breitbart, "Cultural Marxism".

Scapegoating is, as Chip Berlet explains "the social process whereby hostility and aggression of an angry and frustrated group are directed away from a rational explanation of a conflict and projected onto targets demonized by irrational claims of wrongdoing, so that the scapegoat bears the blame for causing the conflict, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of innocence and increased unity." Moreover, he explains, it is a constant feature of both mainstream and extreme right-wing politics, and has been so historically:

Scapegoating of immigrants and welfare recipients is used regularly by mainstream politicians to attract votes. This dynamic has a long history in the US, with the scapegoated targets being selected opportunistically-Reds, Anarchists, Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, all the way back to witches in Salem. Periodic waves of state repression are justified through conspiracist scapegoating that claims networks of subversives are poised to undermine the government. Right wing populist movements mobilize the middle class by claiming a conspiracy from above by secret elites and from below by a parasitic underclass. On the far right are the scapegoating themes of collectivist New World Order plots and Jewish banking conspiracies.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has been exporting its media-intensive election model, which favors style over substance, argument over debate, slogans over issues. This election model facilitates the success of not only those politicians that can raise the most funds, but also demagogues willing to use scapegoating as an ideological weapon.

A similar case involving a mentally unstable killer is one I've frequently cited as illustrative of the power of right-wing politics to attract unstable and violent people -- namely, the 1986 case of David Lewis Rice, who killed a Seattle family under the delusion -- given to him by a group of right-wing McCarthyite conspiracy-mongers -- that he was ridding the world of Communist conspirators and their offspring.

Likewise, Richard Poplawski's lethal attacks on Pittsburgh police officers back in 2009 was inspired by supposedly mainstream talkers spreading paranoid conspiracy theories:

Because we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of thought, there will probably always be haters like Richard Poplawski among us. Inevitably they will be driven by fear: the fear of difference. Because to them, difference of any kind is a threat.

And what we know from experience about volatile, unstable actors like them is that they can be readily induced into violent action by hateful rhetoric that demonizes and dehumanizes other people. And thanks to human nature and those same freedoms, we will certainly always have fearmongering demagogues among us. But the purveyors of such profoundly irresponsible rhetoric need to be called on it -- especially when they hold the nation's media megaphones.

Calling out those culpable is not the same as assigning criminal blame, but it is a socially significant act similar to shaming and shunning. And because failure to do so only invites more of the same -- if right-wing pundits aren't held accountable for encouraging extremist beliefs, they not only will keep doing it, they'll become increasingly radical and exponentially irresponsible -- it is also a necessary one.

Unfortunately, it is all too clear that accountability is not going to be the order of the day among our right-wing friends and their many apologists.

About David Neiwert

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