From the Observer
In his brutality and his obsessions, James W von Brunn was both a relic of the old far right and a sign of things to come. Before he murdered a security guard at the doors of the Washington Holocaust museum – murdered, that is, at a memorial to a mass murder he denied – he was tied into the old web of international neo-fascism. As might be predicted, he went to meetings of the American Friends of the British National party, where he could share his desire to drive the blacks and the Jews from the “white nations” with what friends he could find.
He did not seem to find many. Eighty-eight years old, living in a condo, with a broken marriage behind him, he even joined Mensa, the habitual rest home for failures with delusions of grandeur. Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard, who died for politely opening the door of his car, was in every respect the better man. After the killing, American newspapers decided that von Brunn was a typical white supremacist. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, had gloated that the first black president was a “visual aid” whose presence in the White House would recruit a new generation of racists and the press quoted civil rights groups who worried understandably about how many would sign up and how violent they would be.
Yet for all his roots in neo-Nazism, von Brunn was also a transitional figure who typified a wider range of forces than I can adequately squeeze into the “far right” label. He was an enthusiastic “truther”, who went on the net to deny that the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington had surprised the conspirators in power who secretly controlled America. He hated Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and neocons as much as the New York Times and Obama. “It doesn’t matter that you despise Jews-neocons-Bill O’Reilly,” he declared in one of his incoherent internet postings. “You pay the kosher tax – or else you don’t eat.”
The last time I heard similar remarks was not in the back room of a Leeds pub but the elegant gardens of Christ Church College.
The nice, middle-class organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival had invited Israeli-born Gilad Atzmon who is – and you are going to have bear with me on this – a former winner of the BBC’s jazz album of the year award. He declared that “Jewish ideology is driving our planet into a catastrophe” and “the Jewish tribal mindset – left, centre and right – sets Jews aside of humanity”.
If he had been from the British National party, the festival would have had nothing to do with him, but as he was a fellow traveller of the Socialist Workers party, the literary ladies in their floral dresses and the bookish gentlemen in their ill-fitting jackets welcomed him to the quadrangles of Oxford.
I thought as I listened that, as so often in the past, what unites far left and far right is more important than what divides them, but readers may object that I am still talking only about tiny groups of extremists, who influence next to no one. The 9/11 “truthers” von Brunn joined have a far greater appeal, however. Admittedly, they do not seem appealing on first glance. In fact, they seem nutty geeks with wild eyes, who constantly film public meetings, in the hope that a member of the establishment will admit to being part of a global conspiracy in an unguarded moment.
Yet their idea that the west can only be the criminal and never be the victim of crime is everywhere. In 2003, a third of young Germans believed that al-Qaida was not a cult of death responsible for massacres.
A 2006 poll by the Pew Research Centre found that a majority of Muslims in Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan denied that Arab terrorists could have carried out the 11 September attacks. Of British Muslims, 56% agreed that the hijackers were innocent and 25% went on to say “the British government was involved in some way” with the 7/7 atrocities in London.
Whenever I argue with “truthers”, I point out as gently as I can that they are the children of the Holocaust-deniers. Just as the old far right denied the crimes of the German fascists of the 1940s, so they deny the crimes of the clerical fascists of our day. Yet although I have no doubt some of them will end up in neo-Nazi parties, I sense that the majority are moving in a new direction.
In Voodoo Histories, his elegant evisceration of the paranoid mentality, David Aaronovitch points out that former fascists and communists, secular Ba’athists, radical Islamists, Russian nationalists and America firsters – people who would never have worked together in the past, and who indeed killed each other in the past – are fusing ideas and creating a new ideology. Their politics, he writes, is “a loose coalescence of impulses: anti-globalisation, broadly anti-modernist and anti-imperialist – with imperialism being inevitably and solely associated with American power”.
If you think this fusion is limited only to cranks, consider how human rights groups and secularists are having to combat new and powerful alliances the new anti-liberal ideology has encouraged. Earlier this year, the dictatorships which dominate the United Nations’ comically named Human Rights Council tried to pass a motion stating that defamation of religion should everywhere be a crime. For obvious reasons, Islamic states pushed the new blasphemy law and abused the language of liberty as they attempted to justify the punishment of Muslims and non-Muslims who criticised or mocked orthodoxy.
Strikingly, states that 20 or even 10 years ago would have been their enemies rushed to their side. Putin’s Russia, which has been engaged in the dirty war against the Islamists of Chechnya, supported the assault on dissent. As did Cuba’s communist atheists, the supposed socialists of Chávez’s Venezuela and the Brezhnevian relics from Belarus. The promise of an attack on the liberal values of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience produced a united front.
As he sat in his condo, nursing his grievances and watching his Mel Gibson movies, James W von Brunn may have seemed a relic of the fascist movements of the 20th century. But in his grubby, instinctive way, he was groping towards the new authoritarian alliances of the 21st.