Serial killers and terrorists often claim to be making political statements through violence. But we don’t immediately have to take their word for it.
Last week Norwegian psychiatrists declared that Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and the island of Utøya in July, is insane.
Breivik disagrees. Through lawyers he told a Norwegian newspaper that the psychiatrists “do not have enough knowledge of political ideologies”.
The psychiatrist’s 243 page report will be reviewed by the Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine – the assessment may then be changed – and then presented to the court – which may not accept it anyway.
Perhaps Breivik is clinically insane, perhaps he is not.
But a surprising amount seems to rest on the diagnosis.
On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism And Europe was launched by Lee Rhiannon in October. Edited by Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle and Tad Tietze, the book is an unapologetic attempt to make “the Right” morally culpable for Anders Breivik’s actions.
They argue “the significance of Utøya has been demoted, obscured and ignored” by “hard right commentators”. Calling Breivik insane is a furphy used to downplay his political significance (Tietze also argued this on The Drum last week). Breivik executed terror “in the name of the West, against those too ‘tolerant’ of Islam”. The Utøya massacre was “an unambiguous attack on the Left” and now “[t]he task for the Left is … to ruthlessly expose the true nature of the Right and its authoritarian project”.
If the shape of this argument seems familiar, no wonder: it is an almost exact inversion of that made by some conservatives in response to terror attacks carried out by Muslims.
The conservative thesis is that terror conducted by Muslims reflects something intrinsically violent in Islam itself. The thesis of Humphrys, Rundle, Tietze, and their contributors is terror conducted by someone who cites John Howard and claims to be of “the Right” reflects the dark heart of mainstream conservatism.
It is no more convincing when the protagonists have been reversed.
Mainstream Muslims exist in the same “general ideological framework” as Osama bin Laden, insofar as they share a religion. Yet Muslims who condemn violence are in no way responsible for violence perpetrated by others. It is obscene to suggest otherwise. So surely neither are conservatives, who loudly condemned Breivik in any way, responsible for his actions.
One could draw other parallels which would be equally damning and equally hollow. All supporters of the carbon price have some moral relationship to eco-terrorism. Stalin’s Great Terror means mainstream social democrats need to have a good hard think about themselves. Scientists are at all times one step away from fascist eugenicists. This makes good polemic, and it’s idiotic.
There is an enormous moral leap between believing multiculturalism is a bad policy and systematically slaughtering 77 members of the Norwegian Labour Party, some as young as 14 years old. To suggest they are on the same continuum is to obscure how anybody could make that leap.
And to suggest so in order to make a domestic political point (Andrew Bolt is not mentioned once in Breivik’s manifesto, but is mentioned 21 times in On Utøya) is opportunistic and petty.
The authors argue Anders Breivik is a leading indicator of the rise of a violent far right in Europe: the massacre “marked the transition of a section of the current European far Right to lethal violence against political enemies, characteristic of the fascist era.”
If that’s true, so then Breivik’s actions would take on a greater significance, putting aside On Utøya’s cheap political digs.
But the data on politically motivated violence does not bear this claim out.
The latest report of the European Police Office on domestic terror within EU member states documents 249 separate terror attacks in 2010. Of those, 3 attacks were conducted by Islamist organisations. The vast bulk were separatist (160 attacks). There were no “right-wing” terrorist attacks. But there were 45 “left-wing and anarchist” attacks. The Europol report cites the “increased violence”, and “increased transnational coordination between terrorist and extremist left-wing and anarchist groups”.
If we are simply looking for trends, the data suggests we should watch our left, not our right.
In fact, Europol concluded right-wing terrorism was “on the wane”.
Obviously, that assessment was tragically inaccurate. Europol’s analysis may well be very different next year – that is, if they determine the Norway massacre was not an isolated incident.
But, while we wait, the authors of On Utøya do not offer much evidence Breivik is part of a newly violent movement, rather than a shocking outlier. Right-wing terrorism deserves study, certainly. Guy Rundle’s contribution on the history of right-wing terror confidentially reaches back to Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaigns, but stops in Italy in 1980.
Commentators are sickly eager to pin extremist violence on their ideological opponents.
The attempts to characterise Jared Loughner (the definitely mad person who tried to kill a Democratic congresswoman earlier this year) as a child of the Tea Party is just the most farcical illustration. There was, and still is, no reason to believe Loughner had strong political views.
But the problem with On Utøya is deeper than that.
One of the fundamental mistakes in American strategy in the War on Terror has been feeding the egos of the terrorists. Trials by military commission of terrorists confirm their self-image as soldiers of God, where trials in civilian courts would classify them more accurately and mundanely as criminals.
On Utøya does something similar, but does it deliberately. Breivik fantasised his actions and spoke on behalf of critics of multiculturalism. Those critics have uniformly rejected him. Yet On Utøya seeks, bizarrely, to legitimise Breivik – and to claim violence is a logical extension of political debate (There is a striking parallel with Marxist philosopher Slavoj ?i?ek’s argument that terror is a justifiable weapon to fight liberal democracy).
The contributors to On Utøya say Anders Breivik’s actions have been depoliticised. They seek to “repoliticise” them.
But by opportunistically trying to get conservatives to own the Norwegian massacre, they break down the moral barriers between democratic debate and evil.