They're revenge attacks, now? Perhaps this started with the leader of the South Wales National Front who, reacting to the latest London terrorist attack – this time targeting Muslims outside a mosque in Finsbury Park – declared confidently that "anyone with a right mind can see this is not a terrorist attack but a revenge attack". It was a theme more subtly picked up in reporting here, with The Australian's lead story speaking of an unattributed "fear" this was "a revenge attack for three Islamic State-inspired strikes in Britain over the past three months".
Funny, that's exactly how Osama bin Laden used to describe these things. "The United States and their allies are killing us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir … and Iraq. That's why Muslims have the right to carry out revenge attacks on the US." That's bin Laden about two months after September 11, and it's not remotely an isolated theme. He said it constantly. "It is imperative to take revenge against the evil-doers and transgressors and criminals and terrorists who terrorise the true believers."
Addressing America: "Do not expect anything from us but jihad, resistance, and revenge." Just about every Islamist terrorist attacking the West since 2003 to have left a statement has described his violence as revenge for any number of Muslim civilian deaths, most commonly from the invasion of Iraq. Islamic State uses the same language, more often referencing air strikes on Syria. Hence its message on Telegram after Finsbury Park: "When your brothers took revenge on the crusader nations for the slaughter they are carrying out on the Muslims, they were shot on [sight] by the British police."
Honestly, it's hard to think of a recent terrorist attack that the terrorist hasn't considered to be revenge. And honestly, I can't imagine the outrage if September 11 – or any Islamist attack for that matter – had been described in newsprint as a revenge attack.
Here, the dominant narrative has been absolute: there are no root causes, this is pure evil, we are attacked merely for who we are, terrorism is a simple product of ideology with no social dimensions. And that leads inexorably to some absolute prescriptions: fight terrorism primarily with hard military power, identify hate preachers and ban or imprison them, regard associated communities (that is, Muslims) with a kind of collective suspicion and require them to prove their innocence at every turn.
Does this sort of approach still apply? Is the suspect in the Finsbury Park attack, if proven guilty, the embodiment of an ideology of hate that has nothing whatsoever to do with his social situation? Who are the hate preachers in this case?Are people publicly likening Islam to a cancer or calling for a "final solution" guilty in the same way as a Muslim likening infidels to vermin? Should they be banned or otherwise silenced? If not, is that some deadly capitulation to political correctness because we're too scared to name the evil in our midst?If you're serious, your explanation should broadly hold no matter the perpetrator. Sure, there will be shades of nuance – one is an attack on a minority, the other an attack on a society more broadly, for instance – but even these differences are less than they might immediately appear. Both attack members of society with whom they feel they do not belong. Similarly, you might argue the suspect - if found guilty of the crime - was responding to attacks on him, taking place in his very city. But it's more accurate to say he's reacting to attacks on people he identifies with – attacks he probably didn't witness except through a television or computer screen. Much as the Western Islamist watches videos and reads accounts of attacks on people he identifies with – which is why the theme of masses of Muslim civilian deaths is so central to radical Islamist discourse.
It's true the far right doesn't resemble anything quite like IS: a globally dispersed terrorist movement with a relatively slick propaganda machine. And it's also true that Islamist terrorism is significantly more deadly as a global phenomenon, and more likely to claim mass casualties. But Finsbury Park is not an isolated event, nor even just the long-awaited sequel to Anders Behring Breivik's massacre of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Right-wing terrorism has always been more active than news coverage makes it feel, and it's experiencing something of a surge right now.
This week we learnt that nearly one-third of the people being monitored under Britain's counter-terrorism Prevent scheme are far-right extremists – the number of these people having increased by 25 per cent in the past year.
A record number of white people were arrested on suspicion of terrorism last year, some 35 per cent of the total (although we don't have a breakdown of their political affiliations). And it's showing up in attacks: the white supremacist last month in Portland who stabbed two people to death on a train when they tried to intervene as he yelled abuse at two Muslim women; the shooting in January of six Muslims to death in a mosque in Quebec City; the Brexit-eve shooting and stabbing of pro-EU British politician Jo Cox. The list goes on. And that's to say nothing of left-wing attacks like the shooting of a Republican congressman and three of his colleagues in Virginia last week.
You either believe terrorism has something to do with grievances or you don't. You either believe social factors like alienation (and occasionally mental illness) are relevant or not. You either believe it begins and ends with ideology, or that radical ideologies become more or less attractive as social conditions vary. But you can spot the self-serving analyses by their double-think: the way they radically shift the assumptions they make to suit a predetermined politics; the way they treat terrorism as though it were a touchstone in a broader culture war; the way they seek not to grasp the phenomenon in front of them, but to weaponise it rhetorically. This is no moment for such weapons, and no moment for polemical revenge.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and presenter on The Project.