January 8th, 2011

_Murder in Amsterdam_, Ian Buruma (kindle)

Subtitled: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance

Published by Penguin, who are charging substantially more for the kindle edition than the paperback. Nevertheless, I paid.

Pim Fortuyn was assassinated between my first visit to the Netherlands and my second; it was still being discussed when I was there the second time. Van Gogh's murder, the titular murder of this book, occurred after my second visit, and I haven't been back again yet.

Buruma has a dual perspective as someone who grew up in the Netherlands, but has spent most of his adult life out of the country. The book benefited from this dual perspective, altho the result may have encouraged a certain amount of rambling, and a reluctance to come to any definitive conclusions. I don't see either as a problem; YMMV.

The short form: the Dutch feel very guilty about what happened during WW2 (viz. almost all the Dutch Jews were killed) and that reverberates through Dutch politics to this day. A large fraction of the book is devoted to following the twisted embroidery that is insult culture in the Netherlands, a senseless and insensitive combination of anti-Semitism and accusing people of having been collaborators, or the kind of people who would be collaborators today. (<-- To clarify: it is the insult culture that is that combination, NOT the book or the author.) Another fraction of the book faintly traces how the Dutch population got to the near-total unchurchedness that it enjoys today -- which turns out to have some connections to the insult culture discussion. The main line of the book is devoted to trying to make sense out of two things that worry and confuse most people in the Netherlands: how did they wind up with two high profile murders in relatively rapid succession, and whether that means they should make any changes to the way they do things.

Quite a few pages are devoted to Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who you may have seen interviewed on the Colbert Report, if your viewing habits are anything like mine), a Somali who lived in a bunch of places before becoming a Dutch citizen and minister, and who, as near as I can tell, is now an atheist. Needless to say, while I don't disagree with many of her controversial views (on, say, FGM is bad, but so is circumcising boys; Islam treats women badly, etc.), plenty of other people do and some of them are inclined to violence.

Because I've spent a little time in the country, a good chunk of it in close interaction with people who've lived there their whole lives (worth noting: mostly Frisian, and thus arguably not representative of the Dutch population as a whole), I understood enough of the issues for this to be a very easy and straightforward read. If I'd read it in the 1990s, before having those experiences and doing that reading, it probably would have been a whole lot more confusing (well, there would be the time-travel aspect as well ;-).

I had written most of this review prior to the recent tragedy in Arizona. I was going to write a bit about how I felt that Buruma was trying to find a reason for this murder (these murders) that made sense in the Dutch context perhaps one that would lead to policy changes. I was going to write that I thought that was not right, that no matter what policy you have, there are always a certain number of people, usually male, usually young, usually recognized as troubled, usually adopting a bizarre set of beliefs that on the surface are shared by others, but when investigated at all turn out to be incoherent and nonsensical.

I was going to write all that, but now, it is just exhausting. There are a lot of things you can do in terms of politics, economics and social structures to reduce the likelihood that someone will go do something horrible that cannot be undone. The Dutch have done them. They still get the occasional scary. We get the occasional scary, too. It's sad, and it's wrong, and there aren't really any easy answers when mental illness manifests in this particular way.

ETA: This is more in the nature of a technical comment about the two shootings. Both men used semi-automatics (Bouyeri had a .45; Loughner a 9mm) that were relatively easily obtainable within their local context. However, Bouyeri had a 15 round magazine and Loughner a 30 round magazine (both pulled from google; here's the source for Loughner, since the documentation is still changing rapidly: http://us.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/01/08/arizona.shooting/index.html).

We _had_ regulations on magazine size, and they were pretty easy to get around (there was a brisk market at gun shows in larger magazines, which were legal to re-sell). I still think the regulation was worth having, because I'm a believer in making things more difficult and more expensive if you can't stop them entirely, and I think we should bring it back.