Don't drive right-wing extremism underground


Today, police brought Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for the Norway attacks, back in for questioning. He will have been asked about his links to other right-wing nationalist groups, a subject of obvious interest to the police. Such movements are not unique to Norway, and Britain has been doing some soul-searching of its own over the past week. Attention has turned to the English Defence League (EDL) in particular, a group to which various news sources (BBC, Telegraph, Guardian) have linked Breivik. Though I suspect that doing so may have put me on a government watch-list, I took the time this morning to browse the EDL website.

The EDL denies in its official statement that it has ever had a relationship with Breivik. Indeed, the welcome page encourages “protesting peacefully,” and the three most recent postings are articles decrying “extremism.” Unquirk the eyebrow that shot up at the claim that the organisation eschews “extremist beliefs.” It may well be that EDL members meet in secret to learn how to assemble assault rifles, but they are trying hard not to look like it. Regardless of how convincing you find them, the EDL’s efforts to seem normal are significant. They smack of self-censorship and the moderating influence of public discourse.

In the aftermath of Norway, politicos have proposed a new MI5 unit dedicated to “the Right,” shutting down the EDL and BNP, and myriad other ways to muzzle nationalists. Enacting these proposals would be intensely unwise. Without public platforms, I suspect that the EDL would produce literature of a far different stripe than that posted on its website. Restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly are not only rights violations but also ill-conceived policy; they serve only to push speech underground, where it radicalises and becomes more virulent. Right-wing extremism needs to be diffused, but the best way to do this is to let it burn itself out.