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Bolts from the blue: method and madness in the West

The Norwegian massacre and the gun attack on a US congresswoman were both dismissed as the work of deranged loners. But instead of signifying nothing, they were extraordinarily expressive of current political life. The author trawls through a host of supposedly pathological murders in the richest societies of the West to find deep and recurring patterns.

A man was standing at a bus stop in the Swedish town of Malmö a year ago, when, at the sound of a sudden crack, he fell to the ground with a shot in his back. He was one of 18 people shot, three fatally, over a three-year period in that city by the same sniper.

In January 2011, a US congresswomen stood in a local parking lot sharing stories with her constituents, when a man “hurriedly” walked up to her, raised a pistol, and fired point blank into her head. The gunman went on to shoot 19 people, killing six.

A man dressed as a policeman walked through a rustic, rural island retreat in July 2011, shouting words of encouragement and reassurance: “It’s safe; you’ll be saved.  I am a police officer.” He walked calmly among throngs of young people, firing his automatic weapons, and occasionally laughed, giving several cheers. In the shooting he killed 69 and injured 66; the same assailant killed eight and critically injured ten in a separate bombing attack in central Oslo.

The list could go on and on: arson attacks on Roma houses followed by the shooting of those running from the fire in Hungary; “pogrom-like” attacks over three days by far-right political elements against immigrants and people of colour in Athens; and a drive-by shooting in Calabria, Italy, in which 11 migrant workers were mown down with automatic gunfire.

These attacks come without warning, appearing as aberrations or anomalies, and tend to be dismissed as the work of madmen or the mentally unstable. They thus become not political acts, but irrational gestures of the insane. Alternatively, they are seen as targeted at people who are not regarded as members of the social group: the victims are not counted in debates about political violence, since they are thought to remain outside the public polity. Yet how are we to make sense of these seemingly unusual and unrelated events?

Fashionable interpretations   

A strong current in contemporary political analysis is direct one-to-one correspondence. This style of interpretation can be seen in much of the punditry in Britain following the mass property crimes in London and elsewhere in August: it seeks a single explanation - or is dismissive of complexity. Explorations of working class alienation, consumer culture, youth unemployment, or basically anything that does not include gangs, was seen as being “political” and not “analytical”.

As many figures in the government tried to link the unrest to gangs, reports from the street proved time and again that this was not true. This quest for the mono-causal can be comforting, suggesting that if the real, root cause of a problem can be found, it can be addressed directly. System problems, or as the business expert John C. Camillus has branded them, “wicked problems” – when solutions are often more problematic, or perhaps less appealing, than the problem itself - require complex modes of engagement, involving cooperation and collaboration between multiple parties.

For many political leaders and commentators, there is great appeal in the direct correspondence of simply articulated problems to simple solutions. Furthermore, solutions may also be articulated as “whats” rather than “hows” – the answer to a dilemma, in other words, pays no attention to how it could be achieved.  One unintended result is that listeners or bystanders may take it upon themselves to implement a proposal.

Peter Mangs, the Malmö shooter, has been charged with murder and 15 counts of attempted murder.  All his victims were people of colour, whom he perceived to be “immigrants”. He said his shooting spree was inspired by messages coming from the Swedish Democrats, a far-right, anti-immigrant party. 

The events in Malmö were eerily similar to an earlier shooting spree in the autumn of 1991 by John Ausonius, who shot 11 people from August 1991 to January 1992, killing one.  He became known popularly and in the media as “Laserman” because he used a laser-guided sight on his rifle. As t-shirts appeared on the streets of Stockholm celebrating his exploits, it became clear that Laserman was becoming a local “hero”, taking upon himself what so many others would only talk about.

Arrested in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison two years later, Ausonius gave extensive interviews to Gellert Tamas, to whom he admitted that he was inspired by the 1991 election debates about immigrants, when a small vehemently anti-immigrant party, New Democracy, set the tone and terms of debate, won a number of seats in the parliament, and set about denouncing immigrants’ access to state largesse. Ausonius told his interviewer that he “felt moral support; that the people stood behind him.” He stated that he felt “political support from New Democracy, and also from other political parties.” He felt he was doing the right thing in defence of Swedish people.

Western imperatives

With Breivik’s recent bombing in Oslo and shooting spree on Utøya Island, the spectre of a far-right rising over the European political landscape has been acknowledged. It may be easy to dismiss his claim that he acted to defend a Christian Europe, and treat him as a single, perhaps deranged, individual acting alone, but there is little doubt that he was inspired by the political climate around him.

Beyond Oslo he reached out to groups like the English Defense League (EDL), although there is no sign of a larger conspiracy with this group for further action.  However, the prominent British businessman and funder of the EDL, Alan Lake, appeared on Norwegian Television saying that he would be happy to execute extremist Muslims.  The Independent reports that Lake said: “[Such Muslims] are not respecting that which respects the state and as far as I am concerned I’d be happy to execute people like that.”

The political establishment often takes solace in the notion that such utterances are anomalous, and that murderous individuals are rare, isolated loners. But these individuals are acting out the implied imperatives of mainstream western politics. Issues are increasingly being expressed in dire terms, allowing for no compromise, and suggesting that “whole ways of life” are in danger of becoming extinct unless steadfast and decisive action is taken.

For example, Krisztina Morvai, a member of the European Parliament from the Hungarian political party Jobbik – a Hungarian play on words, meaning both better choice and a more right-wing option, which The Guardian recently described as a “neo-fascist party - nominated György Budaházy for the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Prize for languishing in a Hungarian jail for over a year without being charged.

A few days later, Budaházy and 16 associates were indicted on suspicion of terrorism for mounting bomb plots, attacks on journalists - including the severe beating of a television presenter - arson attacks, and the fire bombings of homes and buildings belonging to Socialist politicians.  Morvai, however, can often be seen walking the halls of the European Parliament in Brussels wearing a “Free Budhazáy” t-shirt. Jobbik and the right in general have continued to garner political strength in Hungary recently, with much of their rhetoric centred on who is a “true Hungarian.”

“Legitimate targets”

Those who are not included in these preferred groups become “legitimate targets” of violence. In April 2011, the Hungarian Red Cross offered bus evacuation to nearly 300 Roma who feared further attacks on their village of Gyöngyöspata, which had been under “patrol” for four weeks by the Jobbik-supported group Civil Guard Association for a Better Future (Szebb Jövőért Polgárőr Egyesület). According to Hungarian Watch, the group woke Roma residents in the night, prevented them from going about their business, threatened them with weapons, and beat up 17 of them.

This distinction between the “true” and “legitimate targets” can include politicians. In the run-up to the 2010 mid-term congressional elections, Republican senatorial candidate Sharon Angle of Nevada told conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson that “if Congress keeps going the way that it is, people are looking toward Second Amendment remedies.”

Asked later about the meaning of the comment, Larson said that “if [Congress] continues to do the things it’s doing, she left open the possibility of armed insurrection.” Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control, interpreted Angle’s remarks as follows: “Its meaning is clear. ‘If I do not get my way in the electoral process, I reserve for myself the right to pick up a gun and to see that I get my way in the political realm.’ Her comment is the intersection of politics and armed violence.”

The US politician Sarah Palin identified 20 key congressional seats as essential to roll back the Obama administration. Each of these was indicated with a gun sight over the district on a map published by Palin’s web site in March 2010. Following publication of this map, three campaign headquarters of Democratic candidates in these districts were attacked and vandalized. One of those targeted, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd: “Palin put crosshairs of a gun sight over our district; when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences.”

Todd responded to this by declaring that “campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have always been interchangeable”, not noticing the very example of calling the period approaching an election a “campaign” is a military metaphor.  But Giffords held fast, suggesting something was notably aggressive in recent rhetoric. She said that colleagues from the House of Representatives with tenures of “20, 30 years” were unable to remember having seen such vitriol before. 

Giffords was threatened again at an August 2010 Tucson campaign rally: an attendee conspicuously “dropped” a handgun while Giffords defended Obama’s policies.  Tucson Tea Party co-founder Trent Humphries told the Arizona Daily Star that Giffords misread the dropped gun, saying “no one is targeting Gabi.”

How wrong he was. On January 7, 2011, Giffords was shot point-blank in the head along with 19 other people, six of whom died, including nine-year old Christina Green, and US Federal judge John Roll.  Investigators found that the shooter Jared L. Loughner had engaged in methodical and meticulous planning, including hand-written notes detailing his intentions that included the heading, “I planned ahead.”

Beyond derangement

The way we describe and understand this sort of political violence has become enormously important. In the same way that Anders Breivik can be seen as a mentally impaired loner, and thus not part of the larger political environment, shootings in the United States are likewise treated as singularities, unrelated to the political environment or the messages and images that shape it.

On July 18, 2010, Byron Williams was involved in a shootout with two California Highway Patrol officers. His mother told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “upset by the way Congress was railroading through all of these left-wing agenda items.” He was on his way to “begin a revolution” by attacking a Californian NGO, Tides, which had “become something of a whipping boy of [the US conservative television personality Glenn] Beck.”

Beck stated frequently on his programme that the founder of the organization, Van Jones, was a “communist” responsible for “shaping the views of the President of the United States.” However, following the shooting Bryon Williams was simply described as “disturbed”, as was the “distraught” man who, in an eerie echo of 9/11, flew his private plane into the Austin, Texas offices of the Internal Revenue Service, killing himself, an IRS manager, and injuring 13 others in February 2010.

In April 2009, white supremacist Richard Poplawski went on a shooting spree killing three Pittsburgh police officers, and wounding a fourth; press reports described him as “nothing but trouble,” just as Jared Loughner was repeatedly described as “distraught and disturbed.” The connection between the acts of violence themselves and a permissive environment of public officials appearing to condone violence is undermined by the parallel claims that the perpetrators of violence were disturbed, mentally unbalanced individuals, acting alone.

Very often these acts of violence are seen as “bolts from the blue”, events without any value as warning signs or significance as political connections. However, many of these events are situated within a wider political and social context in which the rhetoric of violence goes unquestioned. When politicians suggest that opponents are enemies, or worse, are somehow alien or “other”, they appear to sanction acts of separation. 

The most extreme act of separation is the elimination of the enemy. Loose talk of “targeting”, “expelling”, “removing”, or “eliminating” can colour the social environment in such a way as to suggest violence is permissible.  Politicians as well as the everyday public should be more mindful of their words, for it is more than possible that someone may take up an invitation to arms.

About the author

Jeffrey Stevenson Murer is the Lecturer on Collective Violence at the University of St Andrews.  He was recently the Principal Investigator of the British Council-funded European Study of Youth Mobilisation, which examined the motivations of young people involved in radical political and social movements. 


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