The horrific terrorist attack in Oslo has led to a flurry of controversial accusations among commentators and critics over whether the anti-immigrant, anti-Ismlamic right wing extremism favored by the accused Anders Ehring Breivik are symptomatic—or even directly linked to—other movements on the political right in this country and in Europe. On the one hand, the lone gunman theory (actually the proper term is “lone wolf,” within the community of those who sturdy hate crimes); on the other the environmental and cultural argument. This holds that whether or not Breivik was or was not technically acting alone, he was also acting out crimes justified and enflamed by rhetoric and activism that speaks of “Islamification” of the west, “invasions” of immigrants, and the rejection of modern government as at once Marxist, fascist, multiculturalist, and socialist.
Yes, we have heard much of this before. And many on the left are pointing to the Tea Party. To anti-Islamist crusaders like Frank Gaffney, the group Citizens for National Security, and various conservative columnists.
Is this fair?
I’m going to dodge, and raise another point, about national sovereignty.
Beyond the rhetoric of Sharia-law takeovers and immigrant invasions is a more serious, legal and even philosophical dispute about the nature of nations and national sovereignty. About borders and citizenship. Especially since the Bush era, a cadre of intellectuals on the right have been advancing a “New Sovereignty” theory that is related to this current debate.
At its core, the New Sovereigntists argue that nations and their laws stop at their borders; thus the important of citizenship and immigration are implicated. Sovereignty and rights are enforced by nations and governments, set down in constitutions and codes by responsible governments, ideally democratic ones. Hence these thinkers harbor deep skepticism of “human” rights of “universal” rights, which they see as empty concepts, devoid of real legal meaning and thus potential tools of distant organizations such as the United Nations, which are not elected and therefore cannot be held accountable by the peoples of sovereign nations. A similarly deep skepticism of international bodies such as the U.N. and International Criminal Court usually follows. As does a similarly fierce defense of Israel’s absolute sovereignty–which is seen as perpetually under attack not only by Islamic terrorists on its own soil, but by Islamic nations and their allies at the United Nations.
New Sovereignty found many acolytes in the George W. Bush administration. Much has changed since the foreign policy of the United States has moved away from the his “preemption” doctrine championed by the neoconservatives then in government, who asserted we didn’t need anyone’s permission, thank you very much, to act in self defense. At least self defense as they understood it. In fact the war in Libya is almost Sovereignty in reverse. The United States sought and gained the approval of international bodies, but not the Congress of the United States.
New Sovereignty has interesting and substantial intellectual roots, some interesting, and surprising. One being Carl Schmitt, a German legal philosopher and Nazi collaborator who mostly rehabilitated himself after the war and is now being reexamined by postmodern scholars. Schmitt believed that the only distinction that matters in politics is friend and enemy; this blunt and Bismarckian idea grew in his later scholarship to a view of human and political history that encompassed the “Nomos of the Earth.” Nomos is the Greek word for the concept of rule of law on territory owned by a sovereign power.
“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions.” -Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
What we hear today on the right about the incursion of foreign laws into our courts and invasions of foreigners into our communities, diluting our culture and the rule of law has parallels to this. It is happening here with the Tea Party movement and it is happening in Europe as well, in organized and sporadic fashion. I am not, to be clear, proposing a cause and effect scenario. Many of the New Sovereigntists’ arguments are intellectually and legally persuasive. They are important arguments worthy of consideration; my own critique of President Obama’s handling of the war in Libya is, actually, influenced by this thinking to a strong extent.
But ideas, and their followers, do not exist in a vacuum. I do not know if Breivik was reading Carl Schmitt, or anyone else. Or secretly in league with Tea Party Minutemen on the Arizona border. For my purposes, those are only some of the relevant questions. The underlying ideas matter as well, and they go far beyond what a deranged Norwegian scribbled in a manifesto.
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