A pretext for violence
I'm reading with sadness the news coming out of Norway. Apparently, 32-year old Anders Behring Breivik decided that his Christian beliefs were so threatened by cultural shifts, minorities, immigration and multiculturalism that he needed to bomb and shoot people in order to address that threat. The killings were politically motivated: the bomb was detonated at the Primer Minister's office and Breivik then stalked and shot at close range people at a political retreat.
Some will talk about the dangers of having weapons of various sorts and sizes available to individuals like Breivik and passionately implore for tighter controls and regulation of firearms or other weapon-making materials. Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about when, where and why we create weapons designed to kill other human beings, and how we allow them to be used.
Some will talk about how this is a clear cut example that acts of terrorism are an ongoing threat and need to be safeguarded against using increased governmental or military power to fight terrorists and prevent attacks. Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about whether current efforts to prevent acts of terrorism are effective, and what else could be done.
Some will speak of a lone madman who was mentally ill, and how we must find better ways to diagnose and treat mental illness of this sort before an individual's darkness can turn into violence. Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about how those among us who suffer from mental illness are treated and how they are helped.
But we must not forget that behind all of these interrelated paths to such awful acts of violence, there is a singular cause that no amount of weapons control, military might or psychological analysis can predict or prevent:
Somehow, this man was able to construct a worldview for himself in which it was permissible to murder other people because of their political views.
We might like to convince ourselves that creating or adopting such a worldview is not something that can happen to rational people. But we know that our brains and our mental models of the world are pliable. They can be shaped and reshaped easily, sometimes with almost trivial effort. This is why television ads and billboards convince us every day to buy or do things we wouldn't otherwise buy or do. And we know that people from all backgrounds, all social classes, all levels of education and intellect can do awful, horrible, unthinkable things...if they just come to think about the state of the world in a way that necessitates those things.
In his long manifesto posted to the Internet, Breivik stated that "The time for dialogue is over." A simple and chilling statement, but one not too different from the sentiment expressed in social and political discourse happening every day in the US.
As the news media and 24-hour cable news machine tell urgent stories about seemingly great injustices in the world, thinking for us about how to delineate between what is clearly good and clearly evil without lingering too long on any facts or context, they enforce a worldview that suggests the time for dialogue is over. (I'm looking at you, MSNBC and Fox News.)
As political parties create contrived and over-simplified arguments for why one candidate or another is essential to the future of the city, state or nation, and brush aside nuance or complexity in what effective governance might look like, they send the signal that the time for dialogue is over.
As religious and cultural institutions imply or suggest directly that because someone is of a certain gender, religious belief, sexual orientation or ethnicity that they are not fully worthy of some right or privilege that others are granted, and in fact may be inherently evil, they reinforce for their members or followers that the time for dialogue is over.
As communities trade away their public squares and opportunities for substantial conversation about the future of their neighborhoods in exchange for more opportunities for convenient shopping and individual instant gratification, we create places to live where the time for dialogue is over.
And when we no longer see any room for real dialogue, for meaningful, introspective, vulnerable, respectful exchanges about the way the world can and should work, we reinforce a worldview of "us vs. them" and begin to create that pretext for violence as the path to victory. Maybe it's not physical violence...maybe it's economic violence or cultural violence. Maybe it's not a swift act of destruction, but a long slow whittling away of resources or dignity. But when the time for dialogue is over, what's left other than the leveraging of power and the exertion of force?
The acts of violence in Norway are to be condemned, the lives lost to be mourned. But we must also recognize that this came about not because of a lack of gun control or not enough money spent on policing and anti-terrorism or a failure to stop a lone act of insanity. They came about because our culture is creating and reinforcing a narrative about the future that allows for and even encourages exactly this kind of violence against each other.
Until we can imagine a new worldview that doesn't end up at murder and oppression as a logical conclusion, that seeks to build shared understandings through genuine dialogue, and that values life over power and profit, we participate in creating a pretext for even more violence.