Sunday, July 24, 2011
The tragic events in Norway should be a wake up call to the authorities, not to the dangers of so-called "Right-Wing Extremism", but to the very real dangers of marginalizing a political opposition and a point of view to the extent that they have nowhere to go but underground.
The response to the attacks by the Norwegian press and the incitement against the right of center dooms the repetition of this same cycle of violence in which views are driven underground, where they simmer into real extremism and then explode. The easy and simple way to diffuse this cycle of violence is to reach out and create safe spaces for freedom of speech even for the most disagreeable views. European liberals often boast of keeping a tighter lid on extremism than America, with tighter curbs on free speech, but the current tragedy is yet another reminder that this lid is counterproductive. Suppressing a legitimate opposition only leads to the rise of an illegitimate opposition. Shutting down ideas you don't like brings back those same ideas, only heavily armed.
Democracy only works as a stabilizer when it is actually democratic. But the European left often uses the word to distinguish legitimate views from illegitimate ones. This is a misuse and perversion of what a democratic society is. It is not a place where only your views are freely represented, but where all views are represented.
An open society is a safety valve. It keeps people from turning to violence because they have peaceful alternatives. However once views begin to be treated as beyond the pale and once there is an organized campaign of hatred and incitement being directed against a point of view by the authorities and the press, then an unfortunate violent reaction becomes more likely.
Here one may encounter Communist and Nazi protests side by side, yet America has a lower share of political violence and political extremism in government than Europe does. It is because we don't lock up ideas or people who have them, that we do have a free country. A freedom that is not based on constant investigations of extremism, but on a system where even the most repugnant views get their hearing.
The outbursts of political violence in Norway and Sweden-- countries which have become notorious for suppressing right of center free speech should be a sign that change is necessary. The authorities may be tempted to once again reach for the club, but they might consider trying the bullhorn of free speech instead. Police powers are tempting when you have them at your disposal, but when it comes to dealing with political dissent, they only exacerbate the problem. And if the opposition ever comes to power, it leaves the club in their hands.
The American, European and Israeli left all tend to respond to political violence with verbal violence, campaigns of hate and incitement that blanket everyone to the right of them as violent extremists. And there is no surer way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy than to broadcast over and over again the message that anyone who disagrees with you is liable to turn to violence. Especially when such a hate campaign is aimed at silencing that opposition.
Campaigns targeting a political point of view as illegitimate create a cycle of violence, as suppression campaigns drive views underground leading to acts of violence, leading to further suppression campaigns and to further acts of violence. The only way to break the cycle of violence is to recognize that while you may disagree with an idea, the best way to prevent it from fueling political violence is to protect the peaceful right of expression for those ideas.
The very act of suppressing ideas is extremist. And it leads to oppositional extremism. This familiar set of tensions between the authorities and a suppressed opposition inevitably explodes into violence. And for the authorities to defuse political violence aimed at them, they must first defuse the suppression of political speech.
If the Norwegian authorities really wish to work for a safer society, they will reach out to create an environment where political activism and speech is protected. But unfortunately all signs are that they remain committed to the same disastrous state of affairs. And the tragedy that occurred can be laid at the feet of this obstinate clinging to the tools of power, while avoiding the means of engagement.
The left's own political extremism creates its own reaction. And cracking down on that reaction only makes it more extreme. It may be tempting for the left to think that it can use police powers and incitement to suppress that reaction, but after this last attack, it may want to think about following another path. If it truly wishes to convince Norwegians that violence is not the answer, the best way to show it is by turning away from violence, and toward democracy.
Political violence emerges from tensions created by making political engagement a high stakes game. Lowering the stakes and the barriers to political engagement has been shown over and over again to also lower the level of violence.
The answer to political violence cannot be more violence or incitement, it must be engagement. And it is ironic that in Oslo, a city where international engagement has been developed into a fine art, the authorities treat engagement with the right as a foreign notion. But what goes for the world, goes for Norway also.
The reams of ignorant commentary that scapegoat entire political movements for the actions of one man are not only dangerous, they are a more insidious form of political extremism that no free society can afford. They send a message that criminalizes ideas, rather than actions, and by criminalizing ideas, they create a slippery slope into violence.
The best memorial for a tragedy is to understand why it happened and how to prevent it in the future. Domestic political unrest arises not from external factors, as is the case with Islamic terrorism, but from internal ones. Healing a country begins with healing its fractures. And the only way to begin the healing is to open a dialogue on freedom of speech.