As reports of terrorism leak onto the Internet people await the identity of the perpetrator. If it turns out to have been a Muslim, Conservatives talk of the fearsome jihadist threat while progressives claim it was an isolated lunatic. If it turns out to have been a white man, progressives talk of the fearsome racist threat while Conservatives claim it was an isolated lunatic. Both tribes, if forced to make the second argument, accuse the other of politicising tragedies.
One need not trawl through the archives to prove this point. It has been proved this very week. Conservatives claimed that the Orlando gunman Omar Mateen was an Islamic militant while progressives claimed he was a mixed up sociopath. Progressives claimed that Jo Cox MP’s murderer Thomas Maire was a militant nationalist while Conservatives claimed he was a lone madman.
In both cases both arguments contained elements of truth. It was probably correct, to take the most recent example, that Maire had mental health problems but right wing commentators who claimed that he was some kind of apolitical madman, in the face of evidence connecting him to the National Alliance, founded by the author of the pro-genocide pulp novel The Turner Diaries, are embarrassed now that he is barking “death to traitors” in court.
To think that a terrorist must be a militant ideologue or an unhinged sociopath is to erect a blatant false dichotomy. In truth, the unstable and unhappy are attracted to radical politics, where frustration can be released, delusions can be rationalised and the obscure can seem significant. This may not excuse reducing those beliefs to the interpretations of their worst adherents but it may illuminate their worst features.
There is nothing wrong with making political points in the aftermath of atrocities. There is something wrong with making bogus political points. One can tease conclusions from the available data. One cannot extrapolate beyond its implications. Maire’s crime, then, demands analysis of the extreme right and, it appears, its American influences. It does not give cause to attack people with no clear personal or ideological affiliations with the man. (It is wrong, for example, to assume that he was influenced by the rhetoric of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson. An admirer, if indeed he was, of fanatical white supremacists may have well needed no further prodding from such liberal conservatives.)
I doubt that this argument will ever be accepted in a time where rhetoric has triumphed over dialectic. Progressive commentators are accusing advocating Brexit of encouraging division – forgotten, perhaps, their own dire warnings of “economic suicide”. Yet I suspect that Cameron, Corbyn and Farage could join hands and rhapsodise about a glorious, harmonic future and we would remain divided, for division is in large part due to economic, demographic and cultural change that divide by their very nature. No rhetoric can unite our conflicting ambitions and the heat of this election on what is only one feature of these modern trends is symptomatic of the repressed frustration that this has caused. In the echoes of the guns we should reflect on that.