Anyone on Twitter or Facebook this weekend learned quickly that UK singer Amy Winehouse passed away, and speculation about a drug overdose ran rampant over the information highway. The attention, in the United States anyway, dwarfed the other big story of the weekend, that an extreme right-wing man bombed the Norwegian Prime Minister’s offices and then killed more than 80 children who were attending a Labour Party summer camp. The total dead currently stands at 93. But just this morning, Glenn Beck, from his Internet compound, said that the camp “sounds a little like the Hitler Youth.” Oh, the tangled webs we weave.
“Who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics? Disturbing.” —Glenn Beck
Well, the University of Oklahoma, for one. There’s a camp sponsored by the Young Democrats of America, the Future Civic Leaders of America, and the Junior State of America, but Mr. Beck’s douchebaggery isn’t the focus of this article. My issue here is that we seem to be paying more attention to the personality of the shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, than the fact that terrorists come in more types than just Muslim, but I suppose the former is evidence for the latter.
Obviously part of what is abhorrent about Mr. Beck’s statement is its disregard for human life, but related to this is an example of the way in which we warp the concept and practice of mourning via the Internet. When not just civilians but children—and dozens of children at that—are killed in a terror attack, what happens to our ability to grieve? When we see images of people leaping out of the World Trade Center, or hear about teenagers diving into a lake to take cover from bullets crafted to do more than average damage inside a human body, how do we handle those emotions?
With more than 300 million people in the United States today, we hear frequently about spree killings and rampage murders. We also hear about men who intend to strike terror into the public’s heart—men like Andrew Joseph Stack, who intentionally flew into an IRS building in Austin, Texas; or Joseph von Brunn, who shot people dead at the Holocaust Museum in DC; or Jared Loughner, who shot Representative Gabby Giffords—and we don’t frame them as terrorists. We call them other things like madmen, or crazy, or delusional, or something else insulting to people who struggle with mental illness. Mr. Breivik resists a bit of this rewriting with his calm demeanor and interest in his media presence, so reporters rush to focus on his 1,500-page manifesto as evidence of his lack of sanity.
While we ask questions about the shooter, we erase the way in which terrorism operates globally, even in places as presumably safe as Norway. We leave ourselves open to individuals who do terrorism differently than we think terrorism occurs, and vulnerable when terrorists look different than we expect them to, but we keep forgetting to question our assumptions. This goes beyond confirmation bias, and one of the effects is that we have shifted how we mourn in the aftermath of these kinds of events.
Just as Americans got fired up in the days after September 11, 2001, spontaneously chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.!,” so are the people of Norway talking uncharacteristically about wanting Mr. Breivik dead. For a country that actively considers itself peaceful and gentle, such communal anger is difficult for them to process. The wrongheaded tweets and politics-influenced commentary bandied about on the web only slows down a recognition of how and why this happened and where to go from here.
My guess is, meanwhile, that FoxNews is quietly grateful that Glenn Beck isn’t making Nazi comparisons on its dollar anymore.