False Equivalency and Anders Breivik

“Well, he did the same thing!”

We’ve all heard that.  And we are all getting rather sick of seeing it, again and again, in our political discourse.

At least, I am.

Writing in today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat tries to blunt criticism of the Norway Madman’s connection to American right-wing crazies.  The Times, in another story, says Breivik was “deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam.”  Douthat seems to believe that pointing this out is the equivalent of finding similarities in things the Unabomber wrote with Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance.

What Douthat conveniently forgets is that there is no sign that Theodore Kazcynski was ever influenced by Al Gore. The same is not true of Breivik and right-wing bloggers.

To further try to blunt criticism of the right, Douthat attacks Bill Clinton’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  He claims that Clinton “successfully linked the heartland terrorist to talk radio and the government shutdown” though, he claims, “McVeigh’s connections to Republican politics were several degrees short of tangential.”  With his own slight of hand, Douthat slips from right-wing rabble-rousing to Republican politics–but no matter.  His point is that the left makes connections between right-wing terrorism and conservative talk with no more validity than the connection between Al Gore and Ted Kazcynski.

At his core, what Douthat is claiming is that the impact of words has nothing to do with belief.  He writes that the Norway atrocity “doesn’t mean that conservatives need to surrender their convictions. The horror in Norway no more discredits Merkel’s views on Muslim assimilation than Ted Kaczynski’s bombs discredited Al Gore’s views on the dark side of industrialization.”

But the two are not equivalent.  Again, Douthat ignores the sequence.  Gore’s words could never have had an impact on the Unabomber.  Merkel’s certainly could have, on Breivit.

Furthermore, even if Kaczynski is included, violence from the left has never been anything on the scale of what we have seen from the right over the past twenty or thirty years (violence from radical Islam, though conservatives have tried to tie it to the left, has no relation to the political left of America or Europe).  And I know very few (I can’t think of any) on the left who have made excuses for any political attacks–certainly, I have never seen any say, well, they do it, too.

The left-wing violence of the sixties made me sit down and think quite seriously about what we radicals were saying.  Was there an implied call to violence in our rhetoric?  It was a serious question that I, like many others, addressed head on.  It wasn’t a question of “surrendering convictions” but of our methods.  One of the reasons there is comparatively little violence from the left now, I believe, is that we progressives never tried to blame the violence on others or excuse it.  We accepted that we might be, to some degree, responsible and altered our rhetoric accordingly.

Rather than making excuses or distancing themselves from the stream of right-wing violence, conservatives might want to consider doing the same today.