Sixteen years ago, I was one of The Times writers assigned to cover the Oklahoma City bombing. It was one of those wrenching stories that stand out in a reportorial memory that now extends back more than four decades, partly because my assignment was to each day write about the children killed in the day-care center beneath which Timothy McVeigh exploded his powerful car bomb.
One of the things I recall with particular clarity was the numbing realization that, by week’s end, I’d simply run out of adjectives to use in describing broken little bodies. The other was the creeping horror several of us in the newsroom felt as we realized we knew the source of McVeigh’s inspiration for the atrocity. Shortly before the bombing occurred, we’d discussed a story on a vile novel popular on the far right and within the militia movement then flourishing. It’s called “The Turner Diaries,” and it was written by the leader of one of the white nationalist factions into which the American neo-Nazi movement had splintered.
It’s an account of how racist guerrilla fighters overthrow the government and trigger a race war in which all blacks and Jews are exterminated, along with “race traitors,” who are hanged from lampposts on “the day of the rope.” One of the key events in this imaginary war is the protagonist’s successful attack on FBI headquarters with a fertilizer-fueled car bomb of exactly the sort McVeigh constructed. The novel contains a detailed account of building such a bomb, and photocopied excerpts from the book were found in the terrorist’s car when he was arrested. As we later learned, McVeigh slept with a copy of “The Turner Diaries” under his pillow.
All this comes forcefully to mind when considering the bombing and massacre carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing Norwegian obsessed with hatred for Muslim immigrants. His bomb, the assault on government buildings and the killings of those Breivik regarded as traitors to a pure Norwegian identity could have been ripped from the pages of “The Turner Diaries,” now available on the web.
We know from his own manifesto — whole paragraphs plagiarized from, of all people, the Unabomber — that Breivik read and admired anti-Muslim websites maintained by Americans Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. He drew inspiration from European sites that promote the so-called Eurabia conspiracy theory, which purports to expose a secret deal between European bureaucrats and Islamists to hand over Europe to Islam in exchange for oil.
Read a little more deeply in Breivik’s ravings and you can catch echoes of even older hate propaganda, including the work of the American neo-fascist Francis Parker Yockey, whose 1949 “Proclamation of London” prefigures much of today’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. His works are available on the Web, where hate has acquired the half-life of a radioactive isotope.
It ought to be clear by now that hate-laced propaganda poses a particular challenge to open societies in this new age, when their contagion can be spread by little more than the click of a mouse. This filth festers in the nether regions of the Web, a constant attraction to the disgruntled and the deluded. As Breivik’s example shows, we’re all just one megalomaniacal incident away from another Oslo — or Oklahoma City.
Censorship — the intellectual equivalent of preventive detention — is a constant temptation, but one that has to be resisted. There’s little point in burning down the open society in order to save it.
But it’s clear that our current notions of tolerance are dangerously flaccid. It no longer will do, as Isaiah Berlin once pointed out, to shrug and say: I believe in kindness and you believe in concentration camps, and let’s leave it at that. That’s not tolerance; it’s indifference in which respect for free speech is less a value than an alibi.
If speech is important enough to protect, it deserves to be taken seriously, particularly when it is hateful. Wading through this garbage is like swimming in sewage and, nearly always, unbearably tedious. Oslo, however, reminds us that this propaganda can’t be ignored. It needs to be identified, refuted and denounced. Those who attempt to launder these ideas into our civic conversations for their own advantage have to be confronted directly.
More than ever, it seems, the open society must be a watchful one.