So we can blame Chelsea Clinton for the massacre at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand? Glad that’s cleared up.
Clinton was confronted with this bizarre theory at a vigil held at New York University for the 50 Muslim men, women and children gunned down by Brenton Tarrant during their Friday prayers.
“After all that you have done, all the Islamophobia that you have stoked,” seethed senior Leen Dweik, “this right here is the result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words you have put out in the world.” She was referring to Clinton’s rather mild criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for comments regarded by many as anti-Semitic. Clinton’s lackluster response — “I’m so sorry you feel that way” — shows the apple didn’t fall far from the noncommittal tree.
At first blush, it seems odd that a presumably educated university student could concoct such a fantastic notion. But in America’s emotionally charged, Twitter-enabled, ideologically divided political scene, these kinds of arguments are commonplace. Any disagreement, even among people who agree on 90 percent of the issues, can instantly be elevated to a blanket condemnation of the offending party. And when everything is couched as "extremist," the word loses its meaning.
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As you might expect, most of the blame-gaming for the tragedy in New Zealand was aimed at President Donald Trump, especially because the Australian shooter noted in his 74-page manifesto that he was a supporter of Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
Yet those eager to tie Trump to the shootings mostly ignored the next sentence in which Tarrant asked whether he supported Trump “as a policymaker and leader? Dear God no.”
Tarrant wrote that he was primarily catalyzed to violence while touring France, which he saw as overrun by immigrant “invaders.” His other influences included African-American conservative activist Candace Owens, 1930s British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who was imprisoned for killing 77 people in two attacks in 2011.
Shooter wanted to divide Americans
Tarrant was very much aware of how his actions in New Zealand would play out in the American arena. He wrote that one of the reasons he carried out the attack — and with guns — was “to create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms in order to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide within the United states.”
But those who wanted to use Tarrant’s work as a platform for more wide-ranging condemnation of American conservatives were stymied by his unwillingness to take issue positions following the usual U.S. political battle lines. “The nation with the closest political and social values to my own is the People’s Republic of China,” he wrote. Tarrant said he could be both right wing and left wing, “depending on the definition.”
Tarrant called himself an “ecofascist” promoting “green nationalism,” anti-population growth (excepting Europeans), anti-urbanization and pro-sustainable economic practices. He is pro-union, pro-minimum wage and pro-workers rights (to keep out immigrant labor). And he explicitly rejects conservatism, capitalism, individualism and consumerism. “Conservatism is dead,” he wrote. “Thank God. Now let us bury it and move on to something of worth.”
While the ideas in Tarrant’s manifesto do not fit neatly into the fixed boxes pundits use to define American politics, the document as a whole resonates with other examples of extremist literature such as the Unabomber manifesto and Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to the American People.” It presents a radical worldview, a list of grievances and a mobilizing call to action. It details a terroristic methodology, to agitate, destabilize, create crises, and exploit opportunities. It is a case study in terrorism as a revolutionary method.
Extremism is psychological, not a choice
Most important, the online diatribe shows that extremism is a psychological tendency more than a rational choice. Tarrant describes his ideological journey: “When I was young I was a communist, then an anarchist and finally a libertarian before coming to be an ecofascist.” He floated through various, mutually contradictory political orientations whose only common coin was radicalism itself.
For Tarrant and extremists like him of any stripe or cause, satisfaction comes from being a "true believer," to use Eric Hoffer’s classic term. These people subordinate normal human characteristics such as reason, kindness and mutual respect to a dehumanizing universal cause that strips away compassion and makes bloody acts of terrorism not only permissible but mandatory.
To the extent we see these tendencies developing in the United States, with politics driven more by strident ideology and less by the common good, with more strict party lines and less compromise, with increasingly bizarre charges of extremism hurled primarily by people in the thrall of their own radical worldview, our country becomes more susceptible to the programs the fanatics are pushing. And this is exactly what the Brenton Tarrants of the world want.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past," has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Zealand killer drifted from one extreme ideology to another — extremism is real threat