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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Timothy Garton Ash

Mass murder and the Internet Add to ...

"You can ignore jihad, but you cannot avoid the consequences of ignoring jihad." That was the first reaction of American anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller to news of the terror attacks in Norway. When it turned out the mass murderer was an anti-Islamic terrorist, whose 1,500-page online manifesto was replete with material from anti-Islam writers such as her, she shrugged: "He's a bloody murderer. Period. He is responsible for his actions. He and only he. There was no 'ideology' here."

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"No one has explained or can explain how this guy's supposed anti-jihad views have anything to do with his murdering children," said Jihad Watch's Robert Spencer, another blogger quoted favourably by the bomber/shooter, Anders Behring Breivik. "Freedom fighters" such as Mr. Spencer, said Mr. Spencer, should not be tarred with this brush.

Bruce Bawer, the Oslo-based American author of a jeremiad about the Muslim takeover of Europe, was more thoughtful. Noting that Mr. Breivik, in his manifesto, "quotes approvingly and at length from my work, mentioning my name 22 times," Mr. Bawer reflects, with decent dismay: "It is chilling to think that blog entries that I composed in my home in west Oslo over the last couple of years were being read and copied out by this future mass murderer in his home in west Oslo."

So what, if any, is the link between their words and Mr. Breivik's deeds? What should the consequences be for the way free societies treat writers that Mr. Breivik quoted so approvingly?

First of all, people such as Ms. Geller, Mr. Spencer and Mr. Bawer are not responsible for what Mr. Breivik did. It is as wrong to proclaim them guilty by association of mass murder as it is to make non-violent (though sometimes extreme) Muslim writers guilty by association with the Muslim terrorists who bombed New York, London and Madrid. Since that's a game they themselves have been playing for years, one might feel a bat's squeak of schadenfreude at seeing Geller & Co. so effectively hoist with their own petard. But we must not do the same. They are not guilty by association. Period.

But if it's ridiculous to suggest there's no link between Islamist ideology and Islamist terror, it's also ridiculous to suggest there's no link between the alarmist view of the Islamization of Europe these writers spread, and what Mr. Breivik understood himself to be doing. 'No "ideology" here'? You bet there was. A significant part of Mr. Breivik's manifesto is a restatement of precisely their horror story of Europe as "Eurabia": so weakened by the poison of multiculturalism that it submits without a fight to a condition of dhimmitude under Muslim supremacy. He then leaps to the conclusion that the lonely Justiciar Knight (himself) must deliver a heroic wake-up call to his enfeebled society - a "sharp signal," as he told Norwegian investigators.

What, then, should be done about such inflammatory words? Ban them? Of course not; it would just drive these thoughts underground, where they'd fester and become more poisonous. It would also chill legitimate debate about issues such as immigration or the nature of Islam. It would bring to court fantasists such as Samina Malik, a 23-year old shop assistant prosecuted in Britain for writing bad verse glorifying jihadi martyrdom and murder, but not the real men of violence.

Direct incitement to violence should always be met with the full rigour of the law. The ideological texts that fed Mr. Breivik's madness did not cross that line. Allowing the expression of the crusader fantasies of extreme Islamists and anti-Islamists alike is the price we pay for free speech.

Does that mean they should go unanswered? Of course not. Just because the price of banning is too high - and, in the Internet age, impossible to achieve anyway - we need to meet them in open combat. One key battlefield is politics, where mainstream European politicians, looking at the electoral success of xenophobic populist parties, are appeasing rather than speaking out against extremist myths. Another is the so-called mainstream media. In a country such as Norway, public service broadcasting and a responsible quality press generally assure that, while extreme views are aired, the dangerous myths they peddle are punctured by fact and common sense.

But what if you get your news from rabble-rousing tabloids, of the kind favoured by Rupert Murdoch? Or from a partisan TV channel, be it one of Silvio Berlusconi's in Italy or Mr. Murdoch's Fox News in the U.S.? On the night of Mr. Breivik's mayhem, the guest host on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor reported "two deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists." After describing the attacks, she continued: "In the meantime, in New York City, the Muslims who want to build the mosque at Ground Zero recently scored a huge legal victory." Bloody Muslims, you see, planting bombs in Oslo, building mosques in New York.

And what if you get your news from the Internet? Online, you can easily find the thousand other people who share your perverted views. You then get a vicious spiral of group-think, reinforcing the worst kind of ideology: an internally consistent, systematic world view, totally divorced from everyday humanity. The Breivik manifesto is a textbook example.

There are no easy answers. The challenge is to work out how we can maximize the extraordinary capacity of the Internet to open minds - and minimize its tendency to close them.

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University.

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