Commentary: Norway violence proves extremism has no faith

The Miami HeraldJuly 28, 2011 


Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.


"Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war." — Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1

The dogs of war are snarling. They strain forward, slavering, growling, pawing the air, eager to get at one another, to rend and tear and wet their lips with blood. As strangers in a dog park would, we try to pull them back, to exert control. But you feel your feet sliding beneath you, feel yourself carried, helpless and unwilling, into this fight they mean to have. It strikes you how poor a leash is reason.

Which brings us to Anders Behring Breivik, who allegedly bombed a government building and shot up a youth camp last week in peaceful, far away Norway. Dozens of people are dead. Breivik is reported to have seen himself as a Christian conservative crusader defending the faith against the evils of multiculturalism. Read: Muslims.

And you wonder: Did this begin on Sept. 11, 2001, when putative Muslims crashed four planes full of innocent people? Did it begin on Nov. 5, 2009, when a putative Muslim shot fellow soldiers at an Army base in Texas? Did it begin when Cain slew Abel?

Does it matter?

The dogs of war are spoiling for this fight. So a putative Christian burns a Koran in Florida while others use arson to stop construction of a mosque in Tennessee. And now, there is this.

Maybe it makes you want to scream the obvious to those who have grown besotted with conflating extremism and Islam: extremism has no faith. But they probably won’t hear you.

For the dogs are howling for holy war, an apocalyptic clash of culture and faith. Yet as troubling as it is to watch extremists bicker over which religion has the better god, what’s most troubling is not the bickering, but the extremism, which is now ubiquitous.

See it in a global tsunami of intolerance, multiculturalism denounced by the chancellor of Germany herself. Sense it as a great nation lurches toward economic calamity because compromise has become a curse word and ideologues cannot bend. Hear it in the hateful hysteria that now passes for political debate.

It is difficult not to shudder with foreboding, to sense history turning as if on a great hinge, as you wonder without knowing just what it is turning to. This is, perhaps, what Stephen Stills felt 45 years ago when a street fight between cops and kids set him to pondering where all of this — the ’60s — was leading to. You probably know the first line of the very famous song he wrote: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

But there is more in that song that seems oddly apropos to this moment:

“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

And . . . “Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid.”

All of it framed by a guitar slowly chiming two notes like yellow caution lights on a rain-slicked road. The songwriter felt a dread he could not name yet could not ignore. One feels fresh echo of that dread in an era where a man commits mass slaughter in defense of faith and the surprising thing is how unsurprised you are, because extremism is now the norm.

Jaws open and eyes livid, the dogs of war leap. And what can you do, except strain to hold them back? Reason is a flimsy leash, but it is the only leash we’ve got.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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