Rational argument is the only response to Norway

An editorial in "The Australian"

THERE is a diabolical symmetry between the slaughter of 76 people in Norway last week and the terrorism of Islamist extremists.

Anders Behring Breivik and terrorists such as 9/11 bomber Mohamed Atta choose violence to express their rage against globalisation and employ a messianic justification for their actions. Their atrocities serve no rational political purpose and it would be useless, not to say unconscionable, for civilised people to offer appeasement.

While it is reasonable to draw a moral equivalence between the acts committed, it is entirely unreasonable to presume a moral equivalence in our response to the murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoya Island and 9/11. The organised nature of Islamist terrorism, the scale of the atrocities, the preparedness of rogue nation-states to bankroll their operations and their ability to exploit the anti-modern fears of hundreds of millions of people puts the Islamists in an entirely different league from the lone operator in Norway.

Yet the horror of the killings last week has been employed by some commentators to slander their cultural and political opponents and delegitimise views that do not conform to their own narrow code. They suggest that because Breivik was troubled by modernity, everyone who expresses concerns about radical change in Western society in recent decades is implicated in his crimes. They seek to appropriate the event to further unrelated, progressive political causes here. Some have used the attack to smear anyone on the Right of politics and call for opponents of the government and the Greens to back off.

It is not the first time. Earlier this year, there was a similar effort to blur and slur when a madman shot a US Democrat congresswoman and killed six people in Arizona. Commentators blamed the attack on strident right-wing political rhetoric but were silenced when it was revealed the gunman's politics, such as they were, came from the Left, and that his grievances were beyond reason. In Breivik, these political opportunists have found their right-wing perpetrator.

The instinct to close down debate by conflating evil with a desire to question is a worrying phenomenon, and not restricted to devastating events such as this one. We have seen in this country in recent months the development of a febrile atmosphere in which people at extremes of the ideological spectrum feel empowered to attack their opponents or even their questioners, with scant regard for civility or rational argument. It is difficult to pursue genuine public debate about important social, political and cultural issues without being accused of running an agenda. Yet rational debate has never been more necessary at a time where virtually everyone has access to free, unfiltered publication of their views.

Each day brings new cases of illiberalism. On Monday, the Greens deputy leader, Christine Milne, was applauded on national television for citing The Australian's opinion pages as reason to exercise parliamentary oversight on media bias. On Thursday, former Labor leader Mark Latham went into print to urge the government to "strike hard" against "the evils of Murdoch journalism" while the activist organisation GetUp! announced it would try to force the hand of the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to censure a prominent radio host for stating his view on climate science. For the record, we believe the radio host in question, Alan Jones, was wrong on this occasion and his rhetoric sometimes crosses the boundary between strident and offensive. But we respect his right to say what he thinks and note that he gives voice to many Australians excluded from the debate by many other media outlets.

The disintegration of our national conversation into a blogging, tweeting, cacophony is an unfortunate development in a civil democracy. Yet it is pouring fuel upon the fire to respond to the illiberalism of one's cultural opponents with equal intolerance. An ad-hominem tweet, or inflammatory invective on talkback radio, will never win the argument, but that is not what their authors intend. It takes effort to assemble a rational, logically sound argument; it is easier to intimidate and shame your opponent into silence and thereby, in the manner of Steven Bradbury, triumph by being the last man standing.

Many fair-minded Australians hold legitimate concerns about the effects of globalisation and are troubled that the nation and the patriotic values they hold dear are threatened by an influx of people from different cultures. They are concerned, as we are, that government policy that celebrates difference and ignores the values that bind us together is bad for the nation. They are concerned that we are surrendering the values implicit in our succinct but effective de facto bill of rights: the fair go. To hold these opinions may be unfashionable in some circles, but they are not a crime, and the correct response is to reason, not to censor.

This newspaper has always supported Australia's open-migration policies. We believe the mix of people from different ethnic backgrounds is a national strength but that does not blind us to the complexities of change and the need for a common set of public behaviours and values. We believe, too, that most Australians are not racist, regardless of their views on immigration or asylum-seekers. It is wrong to assume that those who object to boatpeople are doing so on grounds of race. Their argument is with asylum-seekers jumping the queue and with people-smugglers. Maintaining the order of the system underpins community support for immigration.

In the shock of Islamist-inspired terrorist acts, the faith of Islam has been served a grievous injustice. Terrorists who claimed to act in the name of Allah have damaged the reputation of a noble religion. But that does not justify a similar denigration of Christianity in this case. News reports, including in this newspaper, have claimed Breivik is a fundamentalist Christian. Whatever his churchgoing habits, it is wrong to smear Christians generally with this appalling crime. It is people, not religion, who are to blame for evil acts.

If any encouragement can be drawn from this tragic, dispiriting week, it is in the work of people such as former British prime minister Tony Blair who are prepared to stand against the tide of rampant secularism to declare that interfaith dialogue may indeed be the answer to fractured globalisation.


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