Red tide rising
IN the wake of the most recent mass killing in the United States, several people tweeted that they hoped the Colorado killer wasn’t a Muslim. Some asked on email why James Holmes wasn’t being referred to as a ‘terrorist’ instead of as a ‘gunman’.
Although the semantic difference means little to the victims, the generally accepted meaning of a terrorist is somebody who targets civilians indiscriminately to spread mayhem and fear. His purpose is to make a political statement. A lone gunman, on the other hand, kills at random for largely irrational, non-political reasons. Often, he is a lone wolf with paranoid fantasies.
Although terrorism is not a new phenomenon, it is being deployed across the world by a growing number of violent but dedicated groups and individuals ranging from neo-Nazis in Germany to Islamist extremists in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Recently, a BBC special report focused on a German group calling itself the National Socialist Underground that killed seven Turks, plus a Greek and a German police officer over a 10-year murder spree. Despite the similarity in its methods, police failed to make a connection between these killings until a botched bank robbery last November revealed the truth.
It appears that the German police had barely tried to investigate the murders, attributing them to an unknown Turkish mafia. In the subsequent uproar, federal agents discovered that some documents had been destroyed, leading to suspicions of a cover-up by right wing sympathisers.
In the BBC report, one racist activist said that he could understand – and sympathise with — the motive behind these killings. He then trotted out the same drivel about the need for racial purity that so many extreme nationalist right-wing groups use. The term ‘Nazi’, of course, is the abbreviation for National Socialist German Workers Party, the formal name given by Adolf Hitler to his party.
It is useful to recall that the rise of the Nazi Party coincided with a period of acute economic misery in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Hyperinflation reached such a level that it took a suitcase full of cash to buy a loaf of bread. Unemployment was rife, and middle-class Germans found themselves fighting for survival.
Much of this economic shambles was caused by the harsh reparations forced on Germany by the victorious allies. Billions flowed out of the exchequer in Berlin to London, Paris and Washington. The resultant anger that built up was channelised by Hitler against the allies abroad, and the Jews at home. Millions of Germans flocked to Hitler’s banner, and the National Socialists won 37.3 per cent of the votes in the 1932 elections that propelled Hitler to the position of Chancellor. In the following year, the Nazis had upped their share to 43.9 per cent following a campaign marred by extreme violence and bullying. Thousands of Communists were locked up, and several left-wing candidates murdered.
The point here is that a sudden economic collapse and a feeling of resentment against the ‘other’ can trigger a transformation in political and social attitudes. This lesson from history is relevant in an era of a crisis of capitalism. As unemployment in many European countries soars and social benefits are slashed, right-wing forces expand by focussing public anger against immigrants.
In France, the National Front gained its highest number of votes ever, with close to 20 per cent. Once widely rejected as a gang of racist goons, the party has now attained a level of support and respectability. If Hollande’s Socialist Party has to impose unpopular spending cuts, Le Pen and her National Front would be the major beneficiaries of the ensuing backlash. Needless to say, the party stands for severe restrictions on immigration.
In Greece, months of fiscal belt-tightening imposed by the EU and the IMF has resulted in shocking levels of poverty in a well-off European country. Almost overnight, millions of Greeks see an uncertain future as jobs and pensions disappear. Here again, attacks against immigrants have risen sharply, with the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn leading the way.
In a post-religious Europe, extremism takes the path of violence against non-white foreigners. Here, because race and colour is the defining identity of many, anger is directed against those from other ethnic groups. In Muslim countries where all too often, faith forms the first and most important layer of identity, those not subscribing to the majority creed are being increasingly targeted.
In Pakistan, for instance, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus and also Shia Muslims are being attacked and killed in growing numbers. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians have had to flee their homes. In Egypt, Copts have been discriminated against for decades. And now in northern Mali, we have the spectacle of people being lashed by extremist thugs.
It seems that rising intolerance, fuelled by a variety of causes, is leading to increasing violence. In some cases, as in Kashmir and Chechnya, nationalism feeds freedom movements. In Balochistan, state repression has sparked off a low-level but deadly separatist struggle.
After the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many of us had expected a safer and saner world to emerge. Over two decades later, we learned to our cost that actually, the stand-off between the two superpowers acted as a force for stability, barring in the areas where they clashed through proxies.
Now, in a world awash in weapons, it seems that violence is the first — and not the last — recourse to settle any difference of opinion. All manner of ideologues want to impose their ideologies on the rest of us. Sadly, it is a warped belief in political Islam that motivates so many of these extremist groups. But religion is not the only motive for violence. As we have seen all too often, people like the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik can slaughter 77 people in cold blood without claiming any divine right to kill.
We should all be worried about this trend. In the West, security forces are so preoccupied by the Islamist threat that they often overlook the far deadlier danger posed by home-grown nuts like James Holmes who, with easy access to arms, regularly gun down so many innocent people.