Jul 2011

Norway. And the Media

There was a discussion between a news anchor and some “expert” pundit on Fox News in the immediate aftermath of the horrific tragedy in Norway, in which 76 people are known to have been murdered. The “expert” was pontificating on the reasons why Norway might be the target of an Al Qaeda terror attack. They’re members of NATO, he pointed out. They recently arrested an Islamist cleric, he pointed out. In the eyes of Muslim fanatics, Norway might share the stigma of the Danish cartoon incident, he suggested. The news anchor interjected… “it has been suggested that the perpetrator of these acts is actually a native Norwegian with a right-wing islamophobic agenda…” To which point the “expert” responded curtly, “I don’t think we should speculate about these things until we have all the facts!”

However much you or I may hate to perpetuate stereotypes, Fox News seems to have no problem promoting the idea that “Americans don’t do irony”.

But sadly, it wasn’t just the rabid right who immediately started to shriek “Muslims!” as soon as the news of a bomb in Oslo hit the airwaves. Peter Beaumont, a columnist with The Guardian, was quick off the mark with his entirely inaccurate and unjustifiable speculation. In an article – Oslo bomb: suspicion falls on Islamist militants – that has since been removed from the website (though is still currently available thanks to Google cache) Beaumont kicks off with the gloriously inept intro…

Oslo police have confirmed the source of the blast that damaged the prime minister’s offices in Oslo was a bomb. The question now is who is likely to be behind it.

The most obvious conclusion would be a jihadist group.

Really Peter? And why’s that exactly?

Is it because most acts of terrorism in Europe are carried out by jihadist groups? Because actually, between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years for which we have accessible data) roughly 0.4% of incidents categorised as “terrorism” in Europe were carried out by groups with a known Islamist agenda. Yup, that’s a staggering 99.6% of recent terrorist acts carried out by non-jihadist groups. So why the freaking hell is it “the most obvious conclusion” that a jihadist group bombed Oslo?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Peter Beaumont was alone in coming to that “obvious” (and utterly wrong) conclusion. Merely that he – like a huge number of people out there – have bought into a media narrative that is dangerously flawed and borderline racist. Though of course, given that Beaumont’s article was actually a part of that ongoing narrative, further reinforcing and extending it, he does warrant a tad more criticism than most of the people who have succumbed to the notion that Islam is somehow uniquely linked with terrorism.

In the hastily rewritten article that replaced the “suspicion falls on Islamist militants” one, Beaumont shamelessly spends much of his time highlighting the (ultra-tenuous) reasons why it was understandable for people to leap to the jihadist conclusion without ever referring to his own culpability in this bandwagon jumping.

The most tempting and immediate conclusion was that it would be a jihadist group, as the style of the Oslo attack bore strong similarities to other earlier attacks in Europe and elsewhere.

Really? Which ones? How many jihadist carbombs have there been in Europe? How many jihadist groups have sent a lone assassin to gun down members of a leftwing political youth movement in Europe? I’m not saying these things have not happened (though I personally don’t recall that being the modus operandus of Europe-based Islamist terrorism) but the fact of the matter is that “the style of the Oslo attacks” bears at least as much a similarity to the 99.6% of terrorist acts in Europe that were not carried out by Islamists. So again, why make that connection?

I am not downplaying acts of violence perpetrated by those with an Islamist agenda. I’m not downplaying any acts of violence at all. Being murdered by an Islamist suicide-bomber on the London tube is no more or less tragic than being murdered by an Islamophobic gun-man on a Norwegian island. Neither victim is less dead. And neither perpetrator is less unhinged or less monstrous.

What I am doing, however, is condemning a partly unconscious, partly conscious media narrative that appears to suggest that terrorism is somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, synonymous with Islamist extremism. A media narrative that insists the statistically less likely conclusion is the “obvious” one. A media narrative that, by virtue of its focus on jihadist groups despite their relative lack of activity in Europe, is guilty of forwarding a deceptive – and racist – agenda.

Terrorism Vs. Extremism

The other thing I want to address here is the weird way in which the language of (much of) the media switched from “possible Islamist terrorism” to “right-wing extremism“. A jihadist terrorist is an extremist . A Norwegian terrorist is an extremist. When an Islamist group or individual is involved, it’s “terrorism”, and there’s a subtle unspoken sense in which all of Islam – every Muslim – must shoulder some of the responsibility. But when the perpetrator is a Norwegian right-winger, then he’s a “lone extremist”. Possibly mentally ill.

The language we use is part of that. The word “terrorism” doesn’t distance the perpetrators from the mainstream population to quite the same extent as the word “extremism” does. It’s subtle. And I’m fully prepared to believe that the journalists and editors who create this obscene media narrative are largely unconscious of it. But that doesn’t excuse it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should allow it to go unchallenged. And if we define Anders Behring Breivik as somehow “unhinged” or “mentally ill”, then the same applies to the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in London, or the hijackers who crashed airliners into American buildings.

Which is definitely not to say that I am defining anyone here as “mentally ill”. In fact, briefly donning my psychoanalyst hat, I have to say that I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the medical metaphor of psychology. However, I am calling for consistency in the media when it covers mass murder. Consistency, perspective and a thorough appreciation of the facts. As opposed to the current gung-ho willingness to perpetuate a narrative that is clearly at odds with reality.

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