Pim Fortuyn and the fallout from 11 September
Why the killing of one little-known politician has shaken the Continent.
The assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn has sent a wave of panic and paranoia through European politics, prompting a confused outpouring of fears about the far right, political extremism, violence and social fragmentation. Many commentators have spent the week thrashing around in an attempt to discover ‘what does it mean?’.
The answer is probably ‘not much’, at least in its own terms. Unlike some other acts of political violence, Fortuyn’s assassination does not symbolise a clash between wider forces in society.
An openly gay critic of Islam, multiculturalism and further immigration, Fortuyn himself was a maverick individual rather than the leader of a rooted movement. Most people in Europe had probably never heard of Fortuyn before he was killed – since then they have heard of little else. As with many of today’s political dissidents, his sudden success at the polls represented more of a rejection of the old parties than any active endorsement of a new alternative. It also seems that Fortuyn’s killer was probably a weird loner rather than the agent of an organised cause.
What is significant, however, is the reaction to Fortuyn’s killing across Europe. The way that one politically meaningless shooting in the Netherlands has shaken the Continent reveals the strength of the culture of fear today.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch themselves have expressed the strongest sense of shock. The reported words of one resident of the capital, Amsterdam, seemed to sum up a mood. ‘It’s like the 11 September for us’, she said. ‘Everybody thought this couldn’t be, but we see that it is possible. I feel very insecure.’ (1)
Fortuyn’s unexpected end in the capital of European tolerance has strengthened the feeling that nobody and nothing is safe, that we should fear the worst and take every possible precaution. This reaction is likely to have far more impact on the future of European politics than the shooting itself.
The Amsterdam woman’s reference to 11 September was telling. The traumatic attacks on New York and Washington have shaped the context in which something like Fortuyn’s murder is now understood.
Then, too, the reaction to 11 September had a more significant impact than the attack itself; no nihilistic act of terrorism can really alter the course of history, even if it kills 3000 people. The terrible events of 11 September acted as a catalyst, bringing underlying anxieties and uncertainties to the surface of contemporary society. The cultural aftershocks cohered a globalised culture of fear. This sense of things being out of control is what now leads people to talk nervously about an incomparably smaller crime, like the killing of one Dutchman, in the same breath as the mass slaughter in New York.
The culture of fear feeds off a state of confusion where it is no longer possible to make sense of events through the traditional language of politics. Responses to Fortuyn’s death brought out this confusion. As Josie Appleton examines elsewhere on spiked, while some tried to squeeze him into the same fascist pigeonhole as Jean Marie Le Pen, others praised his defence of tolerance. The front page of The Times (London) captured the uncertainty surrounding Fortuyn: ‘Animal lover killed by a vegan – Murdered Dutch nationalist to be buried in Italy.’
The precise motive of Fortuyn’s killer remains unclear. But that itself says much about the state of the politics of opposition and protest today. The shooting was an audacious act that, in real terms, means nothing at all; a bloody piece of nihilistic theatre detached from any coherent political cause or wider movement in society. In this at least the assassin seems to have something in common with the anti-globalisation protesters of today – and indeed, the hijackers of 11 September.
Killing Fortuyn might also be seen as a logical outcome of the European left’s narrow anti-fascism and the politics of ‘no platform’, against which we have often argued on spiked. After all, if you are foolish enough to believe that the problems of our cities are reducible to the activities of a few far-rightists, and that silencing them is a solution, then why not just shoot them in the head and be done with it?
Whatever the reasons behind Fortuyn’s death, we can be certain that, driven by the culture of fear, the response to it will pose a far more urgent threat to democracy than the far right or a crackpot vegan assassin. It will strengthen the view that a united front against the spectre of ‘extremism’ is more important than political debate, and that certain views cannot safely be expressed. It will reinforce the ‘safety first’ attitude about protecting politicians from the public, and protecting the public from themselves.
What we need instead is the fullest debate possible about how we got into this mess and where we are heading next. One place you hopefully will find that debate is on spiked – and at our conference, After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, in London on 26 May 2002.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.