A question. I don’t have the answer – to be honest I’m torn on it.

It’s just what conclusions should we take from the news that the Oslo killer was somewhat enthusiastic about, and cited the actions and words of, Australian conservatives like John Howard, Peter Costello and George Pell. And whether it’s fair to run headlines (and link pictures) like this, from The Age yesterday:

Nobody is suggesting that Howard, Costello or Pell want to round up young Labor party activists and shoot them like the Oslo killer did. Nobody is suggesting that they want someone else to do it for them, or that they would be anything but utterly appalled by the bloodshed. I have no doubt whatsoever that they were as sickened by the murder as the rest of us.

But it appears to be the case that their words, their actions, their preferred target, their rhetoric of destruction were apparently part of the inspiration for this psychopath’s actions.

So just what conclusions is it fair to draw from this? You can’t have a free and open debate without the possibility of some killer taking inspiration from part of it and going off on an insane tangent. Of course you can express doubts about immigration policy or religious extremism or anything else without being blamed for what the people on the fringe might do. But then again if you have a relentless and hysterical campaign by the shameless to convince the paranoid that the government or the muslims or someone else really IS coming to get them, and surely you increase the risk that someone at the fringe who really could go over the edge might believe it and do something terrible.

Is it fair to blame Muslims in general when a Muslim with a deranged spin on their religion goes and kills people? No. Is it fair to ascribe some blame to those Imams who preach war and hatred and destruction? Well, yes. Likewise, is it fair to blame conservatives when a gun-nut fundamentalist Christian with a paranoid fantasy about multiculturalism and muslims destroying the West goes and murders a camp full of young left-wing people? No. Is it fair to ascribe some blame to the polemicists who spend so much time painting paranoid fantasies of multiculturalism and muslims destroying the West who appear to have influenced the killer?

I don’t have the answer. There are many Norwegians with guns who don’t go round massacring almost a hundred young people – but then again, without a gun, if they’d had gun laws like Australia’s, then the Oslo killer’s rampage would surely have been much less destructive. There are many right-wingers paranoid about Islam who would never resort to violence – but without the relentless screams of impending doom, would the Oslo killer have been so determined to carry on with his plot?

As Jon Stewart noted earlier this year about the Arizona gunman:

You know, you cannot outsmart crazy. You don’t know what a troubled mind will get caught on. Crazy always seems to find a way, it always has…

I do think it’s important for us to watch our rhetoric. I do think it’s a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies – if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen, and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. You know, it would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV. Let’s at least make troubled individuals easier to spot.

Perhaps if our polemicists could take note of what’s going on in their comments; perhaps if our political leaders could take note of what’s going on at their rallies – and consider just what they’re inciting, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

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