Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Root Cause of Extremism

After I dispatched this morning’s post on Anders Breivik and the Seeds of Evil, I came across another excellent commentary on CNN, this one by terrorism expert Marc Sageman: Why do Extremists like Breivik Turn to Violence? It closed with this (emphasis added):

The relationship between the leaders of these causes and terrorists is a complex one. On the one hand, the leaders usually do not take part in the actual violent attacks and cannot be blamed for them. Indeed, the terrorists often reject their leaders as just talkers. On the other hand, the leaders’ ideas and advocacy inspired the terrorist wannabes and gave meaning to their act. Extremism is not the same thing as violence, but it promotes violence.

Let’s hope that the tragedy in Oslo will stimulate discussion about the human costs of prejudice and help tone down the rhetoric of exclusion and alleged victimhood on all sides.

Here in the USA, we have the vice president allegedly likening members of the Tea Party to terrorists. On the right, we have people like Rush Limbaugh claiming President Obama is in lock-step with communists — and calling him “Osama” instead of “Obama” twice in the process. (Real funny joke. This was on Limbaugh’s website; if he had misspoken he could have corrected the transcript.)

As Marc Sageman pointed out, our leaders may not be committing violent acts, but they bear responsibility for inciting the acts of others.

You and I may think we’re off the hook because we’re not politicians or talk-show hosts. Not so fast. We are a leaders, too. If you’re a parent, you lead your children. If you’re active in your church, people look up to you. If you just have friends who listen when you speak, you are a leader.

Each of us bears some responsibility for the prevailing mood.

But what about those politicians and pundits? What makes them spout so many false or extreme statements — some so obviously ridiculous that a moment’s thought should have caught them in the throat before they were disgorged? How do our leaders end up contributing as they do to a culture of resentment and violence?

In my opinion there is one root cause: Too many of us sit at their feet and put up with — nay, welcome — their extreme statements. We lap up the slop with no more thought than our leaders gave to brewing it. We clamor for them to fill our bowls again and again, never pausing to consider whether the potent sludge might be poisoning our minds. We choose to get high on whatever makes us mad. How much more fun it is to be mad at our enemies than to take the time to find out that our trusted leaders are once again deceiving us!

People, it’s time to cast aside ideology of all sorts. If we are to restore sanity to public discourse, we must try our best to stick with facts, evidence and reason, and admit that often the facts are hard to find.

We must stop trusting our leaders just because they’re on our side. Visit or No matter what your political persuasion, you’ll find that your leaders have told you plenty of lies and you’ll find that plenty of people (maybe you) have believed them.

We get the leaders we deserve. Let’s make sure we deserve better.

Seeds of Evil in Norway

Disclaimer for Christian readers: In spite of the way this post starts, it is not about bashing Christianity. 🙂

Anders BreivikI really liked Stephen Prothero’s article on CNN, Christians Should Denounce Norway’s Christian Terrorist. Read the whole thing for yourself, but the gist is that Anders Brievik’s murder spree in Norway was motivated in part by a twisted take on the Christian faith. He describes himself as “100% Christian” and his manifesto cites a number of Bible passages to justify his violence.

Prothero’s article concludes,

Yes, [Anders Breivik] twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash.

So Christians have a responsibility to speak out forcefully against him, and to look hard at the resources in the Christian tradition that can be used to such murderous ends.

Most if not all Christians I know would strongly protest that Breivik is not a Christian at all, but that is not the point. My point is this: The Christian religion as practiced today is largely peaceful. If Anders Breivik was able to find justification for murder even in Christian text and tradition, then all of us must pause and ask, “What seeds of evil are buried in the soil of my tradition or world-view? And what am I doing about them?”

For those of us whose world-view is secular: is our live-and-let-live philosophy up to the task of shaping society? Are we willing to face — and face down — the evils that our secular outlook allows? I’m not talking about the evils inherent in other people’s world-views; I’m talking about the evils that could be “logically” justified from our own world-view. Religious people think of us as living by “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Is there a seed of truth in that accusation?

If your world-view is based on a holy text, what should you do if the seeds are in the text itself, as some were for Anders Breivik? Do you renounce those passages as not God-given after all? Do you reinterpret them to mean something else? Do you ignore them? Do you claim that they are beyond your understanding? Which is the path of greatest integrity?

Prothero exhorted us to “look hard” at our tradition. Nobody is better positioned to confront your tradition than you.