Encountering evil: my “conversation” with Robert Spencer

After the dreadful massacre in Norway by crazed right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, you’d think those whose messages of hate, chauvinism and paranoia had plainly inspired the rampage, and the ideology torturously expressed in his 1,500 word manifesto, would feel some impulse to either critical self-reflection about what their ravings had produced, or at least have the decency to keep a low profile for a few weeks. No chance.
Last night I had the following amazing exchange with Robert Spencer on Twitter. Let me simply begin by noting that Breivik cited Spencer no fewer than 50 times in his manifesto, and was plainly an avid reader and follower of Spencer’s vicious hatemongering. Indeed, Breivik went so far as to write that Spencer would be “an excellent choice” for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s clear that Breivik’s murder-spree, one of the most brutal terrorist acts in modern history, was directly inspired by a paranoid, chauvinist and hate-filled Islamophobic ideology, and that Robert Spencer was the principal source (among many) for the radical opinions that informed Breivik’s radical actions.
This undeniable fact has noted been by all serious commentators who have written on the subject, including Abe Foxman of the ADL, who pointed out in a Washington Post commentary the obvious truth: “The Oslo perpetrator in his manifesto quoted extensively from the writings of European and American bloggers — including Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller — who promote a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the pretext of fighting radical Islam.” And he pointed out to his fellow Jewish Americans that “we must always be wary of those whose love for the Jewish people is born out of hatred of Muslims or Arabs,” just as I and many others often caution that supporters of Palestinian human and national rights should reject “support” from those animated by anti-Semitism.
Last night, out of the blue, a tweet was posted, directed at me, from someone I do not know who uses the name @VotingFemale:
Hey @Ibishblog ??? World Wide Known FACT: Muhammad a Friggin’ Pedophile Criminal cc: @Hahyrningur #islam #muslim #HAMAS #Palistine #iran
Run-of-the-mill Islamophobic stuff, largely wasted on a lifelong skeptic and agnostic such as myself, but nonetheless sufficiently hate-filled to warrant the following comment from me, which was neither a reply to @VotingFemale nor directed at anyone in particular:
Just got the hourly Islamophobic tweet from the loony right. So, everything normal in Nuttsville, USA, aka, the social media world.
What was amazing was that I immediately received a reply from Robert Spencer, who tweets as @jihadwatchRS (I had never had any Twitter exchange with him in the past), who seemed particularly delighted with @VotingFemale’s Islamophobic comment:
Hey brother, I am glad SOMEONE is talking some sense in your world!
As I say, shame, doubt, self reflection and self-criticism simply do not exist among such fanatics. I replied:
This Robert Spencer @jihadwatchRS is completely & utterly without shame, remorse for the terrorist havoc he inspired in Norway, or anything.
Spencer retorted:
I know your an expert on shameless, but I inspired Breivik like the Beatles inspired Charlie Manson.
The “conversation” proceeded as follows.
You can argue that fatuous lie all you like. The whole world now sees the kind of raw hate, carnage and terrorism you promote.
I didnt see the Tweet, but if you think it’s “Islamophobic hate” it was probably truths you found inconvenient — or medifast
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from your hand? No, this your hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red.
Don’t kid yourself: Shakespeare wrote about you: sort of a cross between Jack Falstaff and Iago.
It’s amazing! @jihadwatchRS actually is completely unmoved by Norway massacre he inspired & continuing to lay groundwork for more massacres!
Watch it Fat Boy — I have no guilt for Norway, and your defamation could be actionable — keep it coming, I am noting it down
Your writings, Robert Spencer @jihadwatchRS, directly inspired 1 of the worst terrorist acts in history. You think you can sue me for that?
Ibish is continuing to lay groundwork for his next eclair…
yeah and jodie foster inspired hinckley to shoot reagan. You’re only fooling ur fans.
No shame, no remorse, no basic humanity, no decency. Just hate. How do you, Robert Spencer @jihadwatchRS, live with yourself after Norway?
sure — no remore because no guilt. Goebbels taught you well.
This twitter exchange was so remarkable that I thought it ought to be not only registered on this blog, but also noted and analyzed. Let’s take Spencer at his word: he didn’t see the original tweet, he only saw me complaining about an Islamophobic comment. That only makes matters worse for him, because it means that he instantly celebrated an Islamophobic remark as “talking sense” by definition, without bothering to check what it was or exercising any kind of judgment on the propriety or decency of the remark. That it was Islamophobic was good enough for him. I can’t imagine a stronger self indictment. He likes Islamophobia on principle, and doesn’t even bother looking at it before pronouncing it “sense.”
Of course Spencer’s grasp of American tort law is almost as weak as his grasp of Islamic history, theology and sharia, which he makes a tidy living defaming in order to spread exactly the kind of fear, paranoia and hatred about Muslims in general, and particularly Western Muslims, that inspired the Norway massacre. Spencer cannot sue me for saying that he inspired Breivik and continues to lay the groundwork for further acts of anti-Muslim-inspired terrorism (although Breivik’s victims seem to be entirely fellow Euro-Norwegians). This is because in the United States, under the First Amendment of the Constitution, I am entitled to that opinion and to express it. If he wants to sue people for saying this, he will be taking on almost all commentators who have looked into the matter, and he might as well begin with Mr. Foxman of the ADL, who has much deeper pockets than I do. The list of potential frivolous lawsuit defendants on such fatuous bases is exhaustive and almost all-inclusive, and in many jurisdictions Spencer would run the serious risk of being fined for filing a frivolous lawsuit. Summary judgment against the plaintiff in such a preposterous action is virtually guaranteed in almost any jurisdiction or circumstance. And, I very much doubt that any attorney, unless exceptionally well-paid and unethical, would agree to go forward with even a pro forma filing because there are absolutely no grounds to do so.
More importantly, however, under American libel law (as Spencer may or may not know) truth is an absolute defense. These are opinions, and I’m entitled to express any opinion I like (not to claim specific facts that are false, have an intention based on “actual malice,” and result in measurable financial damages). I’m not claiming any specific facts in this Twitter exchange, only opinions. But if Spencer wants the assertion that he was a direct inspiration for Breivik and his terrorist rampage tested in a court of law, he’s going to find that his greatest obstacle is not the protection of opinion (which, in any event, he could not get around) but rather the demonstrable fact that this assertion is true. Breivik was clearly motivated by a hate-filled and fanatical ideology developed and propagated by the likes of Spencer, Pamela Geller (Spencer’s closest collaborator) and the late Oriana Fallaci (to whom Spencer gave an award). Breivik was an avid reader and fan of Spencer and his specific ideas.
Charles Manson did not act on an ideology promoted by the Beatles. He was delusional and manipulative and convinced his followers that there were “hidden messages” in the White Album and other bizarre concoctions that simply were not there. Hinckley wanted to impress Jodie Foster, but she never said or did anything that could possibly have inspired his attempted assassination of President Reagan. Spencer, on the other hand, has spent more than a decade promoting very detailed paranoid, chauvinistic, Islamophobic and extreme political opinions which Breivik gobbled up with impressive enthusiasm and then translated into political action by shooting almost 100 of his fellow Norwegians because he thought they were traitors in the holy crusade against Islam (the idea of a war of religions, civilizations and cultures being the primary informing theme of all of Spencer’s ravings).
Obviously Spencer doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth — the undeniable, unavoidable, indisputable truth — is that his writings were among the most direct influences on the thinking of the perpetrator of one of the worst terrorist acts in modern history. All Breivik did was take Spencer’s ideas to their logical conclusion. The correct analogy would be to the vicious rhetorical anti-Semites of the 19th and early 20th centuries who preached fear and hatred of Jews and Judaism, but would have disavowed any responsibility whatsoever for the Holocaust. Were they directly culpable for the genocide of the Jews? No. But do they have a responsibility for the logical consequences of their words taken to extremes by homicidal madmen? Yes. The same goes for radical Muslim preachers who rail against “infidels,” “apostates,” “hypocrites,” Arab and Muslim regimes and the West. Many of them never call directly for violence, but what serious person does not see the direct connection between hateful language and the violent deeds they predictably inspire? Preachers of anti-Semitic or radical Islamist hate deserve no exoneration for the consequences of their deliberate promotion of loathing. Spencer, Geller and their ilk must also bear the same responsibility.
Spencer can no more sue me for saying that he was a direct inspiration for Breivik and his terrorist rampage then I can sue him for calling me fat. In both cases this is a matter of opinion, protected by the First Amendment. But, even more importantly, in both cases truth asserts itself as an absolute defense. I am in fact fat, and only a delusional person would deny that obvious truth. Spencer did inspire Breivik and his actions, and that is equally — and equally obviously — true.
What’s most amazing is that the horror in Norway does not appear to have caused Spencer a moment of self-reflection, doubt or criticism. I think there are ample grounds, based on that alone, to question the extent to which he’s really unhappy about the evident consequences of his hate-mongering. His closest collaborator, Pamela Geller, has made no bones about her barely disguised glee at the killings at the Norway youth camp, which she called an “anti-Semitic indoctrination training center.” She referred to the “antisemitic war games” conducted there, decried “Norway’s antisemitism and demonization of Israel,” and said that fellow lunatic “Glen Beck was not far off when he compared it to the Hitlerjugend or Young Pioneers.” Blaming the victims and blatantly justifying the attack in spite of her denials and protestations to the contrary, she wrote “Breivik was targeting the future leaders of the party responsible for flooding Norway with Muslims who refuse to assimilate, who commit major violence against Norwegian natives, including violent gang rapes, with impunity, and who live on the dole… all done without the consent of the Norwegians. . .
Well, who could blame him then? If this isn’t, in effect, a self-defense or justifiable homicide argument, I don’t know what is. And there’s no doubt that she did remove an original and openly racist caption of a photo of the assembled Norwegian youth victims of the massacre that read: “note the faces which are more Middle Eastern or mixed than pure Norwegian.” Her posting was full of denials that she was doing so, but consisted of little more than justifications, rationalizations and barely disguised sympathy for the terrorist outrage.
There are also grounds for thinking that Geller’s blog may have been the site of an ominous posting by Breivik. In 2007 someone in Norway commented on her blog, “We are stockpiling and caching weapons, ammunition and equipment. This is going to happen fast.” As Glenn Greenwald has noted, “she said she was purposely shielding the identity of the letter-writing — by publishing it anonymously – in order to prevent the writer from being investigated and prosecuted.” Most of this has been deleted from her website, for obvious reasons. If the comment was from Breivik, Geller’s responsibility goes far deeper than mere inspiration.
Geller is not Spencer, but their collaboration is deep and their partnership strong, which is unusual because both of them, Spencer in particular, have a long history of falling out with collaborators. Both of them give every appearance of being emotionally unbalanced subjects (also a First Amendment protected opinion, thank you very much). These people clearly do not feel any responsibility for what their writings inspired in Norway, nor do they seem particularly bothered by the terrorist outrage. And they are doing nothing whatsoever to question their approach, moderate their tone, or do anything at all to help prevent this from happening again. All of this makes it difficult to believe that they are, in reality, unhappy about the massacre in Norway.