Why we must stop seeing far-right terrorists as lone wolf offenders

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Why we must stop seeing far-right terrorists as lone wolf offenders
Ninety-two fires at asylum homes last year were deliberate. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

OPINION: Our cognitive bias makes us view Islamist and far-right terrorists differently, writes Swedish researcher Christer Mattsson.


The fundamental attribution error, sometimes called the mother of all prejudice, teaches us that we are likely to ascribe the negative actions of others to their poor morale or other inner qualities, and look to unfortunate circumstances to explain our own shortcomings.

If I arrive late it is because the bus left too early and right in front of my nose. If you arrive late, it is because you are careless and irresponsible. This also works on a collective level.

When people who the majority perceives as belonging to a different cultural or religious group commit reprehensible acts, it is more likely that we attribute the reason behind these acts to characteristics said to be associated with the group and we look for patterns whether they are there or not.

However, if the offender is part of what is perceived to be the majority, it is highly likely that we instead choose to view these acts as deviations – he or she is insane in one way or another.

The fundamental attribution error is a very useful term in social psychology which could help us understand why it is easier to notice patterns when violence is carried out in the name of Islam, rather than when violence is carried out for racist and/or Nazi purposes.

Terror and violence carried out by extremists of various persuasions have been continuously present for many years, in our part of the world too, and it cannot be said that there was ever a time without political terror of some kind.

But while it is easy to find links, both real and less probable, between people who execute Islamist violence and various Islamist organizations or ideas, it has been distressing to see how racist perpetrators are instead seen as loners and madmen.

Leading politicians, civil servants and sometimes even academics talk about "rapid radicalization" when people with no previous known connections to Islamist groups suddenly commit serious and gruesome crimes, even if evidence of links is scarce.

Nobody talks about rapid radicalization when refugee accommodation is set on fire and nobody talks about extremist thought police in Swedish dominated residential areas brainwashing Swedish youths with racist ideology when Roma beggars are the victims of life-threatening violence.

Anton Lundin-Pettersson murders three people for racist reasons at a school in Trollhättan, Peter Mangs shoots and kills several people over several years in Malmö because of racist and fascist beliefs, the mayor of Skurup resigns after an arson attack with Nazi overtones on his home and three bombs are placed in Gothenburg with the suspected perpetrators having clear links to a well-known Nazi organization.

In none of these cases do we talk about radicalization, nor do we try to explain it through their Swedishness or how racist ideas in Swedish society have been transferred to them, which in combination with several other factors, contributed to extreme and fatal violence.

My own research includes Swedish local authorities' action plans against violent extremism, and although the study will be presented later this spring, I am already able to say that it is significantly more common that these plans treat Islamist rather than far-right violence.

This also applies to towns where there are no known examples of extreme Islamist environments, but where there are active Nazi organizations.

I do not think it is as simple as that we underestimate far-right violence or that we do not know that it exists. If we think about it we know that it has been ongoing for decades.

I rather think that it is a combination of the fundamental attribution error, that we recognize our own domestic perpetrators and see them as loners, and that members of the majority rarely have to feel threatened by these groups.

As long as you are not politically active in a movement that irritates the Nazis, as long as you do not live at an asylum centre, as long as you are not LGBTQ, as long as you do not beg on our streets and as long as your body is not perceived as one of colour, far-right hate, threats and violence will not target you.

But it is time to state loud and clear that there is an obvious connection between those everyday racist stereotypes creating meaning for the hateful keyboard warriors online and those who use deadly force to create a racially pure nation.

Democracy must open its eyes to this racist version of the fundamental attribution error for us to be able to recognize that what is happening is, just like all other terror, a threat to the system.

Christer Mattsson is a researcher at the Segerstedt Institute at Gothenburg University. This is a translation of an opinion piece first published in Swedish by SVT Opinion on February 8th.

Christer Mattsson. Photo: Sanna Sjöswärd


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