By Rahul Menon:
As you read this, the full horror of the deadly attacks on Brussels that took place on March 22, already being termed as Black Tuesday, will gradually become more evident, and the familiar drama of fear, shock and proposed retribution will play out on the world’s stage. This will surely not be the last time we hear of news like this; what matters, therefore, is how we react, and how we may gather the courage to look deep within us to strike at the root that allows such hate and anger to sprout within us.
The world may be caught in a murderous conflict between what people interpret as modernity and pre-modern religious dogma, but it is a cliché that’s worth repeating that terror has no religion.
In fact, it might be instructive to go back in time and devote some time to studying two acts of terror which have occurred in the not so distant past and the reactions that they engendered. More specifically, how the two acts were analysed and reported by prominent Western writers in major publications.
When a nation such as Norway experienced an act of mass murder like the one perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik, it was bound to leave a scar that bled deep. 77 people were killed in the gruesome attacks on July 2011, roughly 69 of whom were youth workers of the Norwegian Labour Party. Therefore, when a celebrated Norwegian writer attempted to make sense of the tragedy, it offered one a potentially enlightening glance into the sordid affair. Unfortunately, Karl Ove Knaussgard’s piece in The New Yorker (May 25, 2015) on the psychology of Breivik is important not for what it does say, but for what it does not. In its shocking insularity and blindness, it reveals much of the hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to reporting on the more urgent questions of our times.
Knaussgard’s claim to fame is a six-volume autobiography that bears the title ‘My Struggle’. He is a writer who has been compared by many to the French writer Marcel Proust, for similar explorations into the hidden recesses of memory. His vision of his country Norway is that of an idyllic land that is relatively ‘homogeneous and egalitarian’, where expressions of nationalist pride unite both the left and the right in an egotistic but essentially ‘harmless’ display. It is easy to understand the idyll of Knaussgard’s world that was shattered by the event. Breivik represents the face of undeniable evil, a mass murderer who rails against the government for displaying the most brutal sadism by not providing him an ergonomically designed pen or a PlayStation console.
This leads the author to a reflection on the ‘banality of evil’, a term famously coined by Hannah Arendt in her reportage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Knaussgard, however, draws a sharp distinction between Eichmann and Breivik, claiming that the Nazis had the support of a horrendous organisational machinery, while Breivik was alone. He was raised alone, acted alone, his actions a grotesque attempt to overcome the crippling isolation in which he found himself – “He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else.”
This paradox forms the central theme in Knaussgard’s piece: the insistence on the fact that Breivik was someone alienated from society, yet society is not to be blamed for his alienation or the actions it inspired in him. Let us grieve, but know that our grief may be alleviated with the knowledge that we had no role to play in sparking off that unholy first mutation of cells, that grew to consume a narcissistic young man into turning a gun barrel on innocents so as to shine a spotlight on himself.
Knaussgard believes that while several people have the same background as Breivik, and while several people share the same sort of ideology he does, it was only Breivik who turned to the gun. Pointing to Breivik’s madness allows Knaussgard and the rest of Norway a shot at absolution. This is an extremely weak defence; to succumb to Godwin’s law, a majority of Germans subscribed to the Nazi ideology, while only a relative few took the conscious decision to exterminate a people. Do we then reduce the Holocaust to an act of simultaneous psychopathy? Or would our understanding be better served by investigating why it was that Breivik was convinced that youth workers of the Labour Party deserved to die for not resisting a Muslim invasion of Europe?
Breivik’s rambling manifesto, by his own admission, largely consisted of other people’s writings, and it was a testament to the fact that the propagation of a certain worldview resonated with him. One of the authors who inspired him was Robert Spencer, whose website – titled Jihad Watch – declares that “Violent jihad is a constant of Islamic history… This denial of equality of rights and dignity remains part of the Sharia…”
Another inspiration was Pamela Gellar, one of the key members of the American Freedom Defence Initiative, who organised the ‘Draw Muhammed’ contest in Texas that was attacked by two gunmen in May last year. Clearly, Breivik’s ideas did not develop in a vacuum.
It is thus shocking when Knaussgard insists – fingers in his ears and screaming aloud to drown out all evidence to the contrary – that “[Breivik’s] political ideas explain nothing.” When Switzerland passed a law banning the construction of minarets, and when nationalist parties notched significant gains in countries such as France, the Netherlands, England, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway itself, does it make sense anymore to examine Breivik’s acts as a profoundly solipsistic act?
Contrast this with Janet Reitman’s piece on Dzokhar Tsarnaev for Rolling Stone. Dzokhar, along with his older brother Tamerlan, was accused of planting two improvised home-made explosives at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013; the explosions claimed the lives of three and injured nearly 264 people. Reitman’s article is insightful, as engaging as Knaussgard’s is infuriating. She does not employ the simplistic trope of Islam – or radical Islam, if you like your labels watered down with some liberalism – brainwashing an impressionable youth. While she does investigate Dzokhar’s possible radicalisation, she also highlights the complex social structures that all played a possible role in driving the young man into committing a heinous crime.
Persecuted in Chechnya, Dzokhar’s parents came to America convinced that a better life lay before them. Yet the schisms that develop when one realises that opportunities are hard to come by in the ‘land of opportunity’ drove the family apart, with the parents returning to Chechnya and Tamerlan finding sanctuary in the world of religion, seeking desperately to belong in an unfamiliar world. Dzokhar succumbs slowly to Tamerlan’s influence, his Twitter messages increasingly beginning to speak of his disenchantment with the society his parents adopted for him. Chechnya, rocked by an independence struggle waged under the oppressive cloak of a religious jihad, exerts the force of an imaginary lost homeland over the uprooted boy. It is hard for outsiders to appreciate how magnetic such a force can be, or its potential for damage.
This in no way must be understood as condoning his crime; it is easy to understand why many people would find it hard to forgive him. Yet the question goes beyond a simple calculus of forgiveness or retribution; what is sorely needed is a clear understanding of the social structures that provide the backdrop against which these murderous acts are staged.
When someone who professes adherence to the ideology of radical or political Islam sets off a bomb or carries out an act of mass violence, it is labelled as an act of terrorism. It is considered a political act and, as such, blame is levelled not just at the agent who carried it out, but also the social, political and religious structure he or she belongs to. Agency has been exercised, and it is rational agency, and thus the supposed rationale behind it is called to account for the individual’s crime.
In contrast, the expression of hatred towards Islam as an all-encompassing category is always termed as Islamophobia. This term explains away ideological, structural and often racial prejudice as a kind of mental illness. This irrational ‘phobia’ is understood to have no grounding at all in the society from where these ideologies spring. Hyper-agency has been exercised; the responsibility for these acts is solely that of the agent, while the broader working of society is absolved of the crime.
These phenomena are mirror-images of each other. They lighten and darken shades of grey to give rise to a perverse chiaroscuro, representing the liberal, secular, modern Self against the illiberal, ‘pre-modern’ Other. This immunises developed societies from the need to undertake an examination of their own failings. The schism in the way these categories are recognised reflects the prejudices of the developed capitalist world, where the saga of the march towards modernity is often sung in terms of the triumph of individualism over the suffocating shackles of feudalism.
The fact that many countries in the world that practice Islam are under-developed is seen as valid ground for interpreting violent acts in a sociological framework, for the methodological impulse is that under-developed societies that have not made the transition to modernity must exercise greater power over the individual. Thus, no exercise of violent agency can ever take place without the so-called pre-modern society’s approval, and hence it must be blamed for the agent’s action. In contrast, modern societies are those that by definition alone allow for the greatest freedom for the individual to act. Every action is interpreted solely as that of the individual, whereas the ties that bind them to society go unrecognised.
Modernity defends itself against Breivik’s acts by claiming he chose to cut himself loose from humanity, and that modernity allows one to make such a choice. This, in its own eyes, is its fundamental strength. The Tsarnaevs, on the other hand, according to this logic, were motivated by a poisonous ideology and social structure that had its birth in the pre-modern badlands outside of modernity’s fortresses. In these societies, we are given to understand and accept that violence is both the norm and narrative.
The fact is that America and its allies are currently engaged in a murderous conflict against regions that are predominantly Muslim, though the existence of the religion itself has little to do with the causes of this conflict. The current conflict is a legacy of the arrogance of colonialism, both in its old-school and new-age avatars. If it is to be successful, the perpetrators of violence must ensure that those that actually carry out their orders see their targets not as victims, but enemies, and that both sides do not recognise any part of themselves in each other.
Before anyone accuses me of condoning the violence of groups such as ISIS, let me assert that my interest lies firmly in the explanation of acts of violence, and not in its justification. There lie no rational grounds for the justification of the horrific acts of ISIS, or celebration of their spectacles of medieval barbarity. Yet, a condemnation of these groups does not preclude one from asserting that the neo-colonial adventures of the United States have served as midwife to the current crop of apocalyptic death cults that hold sway in West Asia and in the modern imagination. The disbanding of the Iraqi army is said to have driven most of their commanders into the arms of ISIS, and the sectarian violence unleashed upon Sunni neighbourhoods as a result of the imposition of a Shia government by the American regime in Iraq has provided ISIS with a steady stream of fresh recruits. The history of neo-colonialism has repeated itself through tragedy, farce, and now misery.
These facts are swept under the carpet in much of mainstream discourse today. My point is this: has any examination of the Paris attacks dared to question whether the perpetrators suffered from a mental illness, in the way that we seem only too eager to diagnose Anders Breivik? There can be no justification for the cowardly attacks in Paris and Brussels. But why is the society that gave rise to Breivik absolved of his acts, while the same standard is not applied to others?
There is a problem when we decide that terrorists like Breivik must be shown to be completely alienated from the society they belong to, so as to insulate modern societies from the recognition of the implicit biases and prejudices that feed its colonial impulse. The victim must be Othered, the familiar must be isolated.
As with most things, the way out of this impasse lies between the Scylla and Charybdis of those approaches that affirm only the pre-modern or the modern in the examination of violent acts. What are needed are approaches that look at the shifting tectonic plates of context that destabilise the ground beneath our feet.
What I find puzzling is Knaussgard’s assertion that Breivik’s mental illness could never have been influenced in any way by society. Studying patients affected by schizophrenia in America and India, the Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann found that the voices American patients heard almost always exhorted them to commit acts of violence against others or themselves. In contrast, Indians were told to perform domestic work. There is extreme arrogance in the view that the individual mind can be separated from the social body.
To look at Breivik’s actions as more than just the work of a diseased mind would mean turning a critical eye on Norwegian society. One must drain a wound of all its poison if one is to heal, however painful the process might be, or the disease will only spread through the body politic. Knaussgard’s absolute refusal to do anything of the sort speaks of a dangerous nationalism; he does not wish to see Norway as anything other than a “harmonious (and) well-functioning…land.” As I read through his essay, I found myself reacting to his frenzied attempts at insulating Breivik from society first with disbelief, then with bemusement. I ended, however, in anger when he wrote these final words:
“Once again, that day becomes something concrete… not an argument in a political discussion but a dead body bent over a stone at the water’s edge. And, once again, I cry. Because that body has a name, he was a boy, he was called Simon.”
To forestall all debate by thrusting the image of a dead child into view is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that is as tasteless as it is dishonest. The image of children killed by violence is like emotional shrapnel. They rip through us and slice us open, exerting a far greater toll than any weapon. Death offers no respite from the imbalance of power, for mainstream narratives dictate whose children are shown dying, and whose are relegated to the dustbins of history. But if we do not go beyond, and find out who laid the bomb in the first place, we will always live in fear of the next explosion.