Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:
Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.
It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.
Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.
Extremism Starts with Psychology
It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.
It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.
Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.
What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.
What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.
Games Don’t Make Killers
S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.
This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.
The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.
Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.
And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:
The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.
“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”
Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:
The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with
violent gamesreligion” then the gamereligion should be banned.
“How can we allow the
profitsevangelism of the games industryreligion and selfishnessdogma of games libertariansthe faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”
That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.
A Better Way
We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.
But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.
With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.
Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.