Anders Behring Breivik: terrorist or madman?

27 Jul

Flowers in Oslo

Since the news of the Norwegian massacre broke, the blogosphere and mainstream media have been engaged in understandably urgent efforts to make some sense of the weekend’s ghastly events. One of the methods employed is a semantic discussion as to whether or not the perpetrator ought to be identified as a terrorist, or a lone madman acting out his insane fantasies.

As some authors have pointed out, the term terrorist is largely used when the violent events are performed by Islamic fundamentalists. When the perpetrator is identified as white and homegrown, they are described as mad, lunatic, a lone wolf, or a crazy isolationist. Terrorism has become synonymous with Muslims, while attacks on civilians such as those carried out by non Muslims like Anders Behring Breivik,  Timothy McVeigh, or Jared Lee Loughner are constructed by the media and often politicians as the insane actions of a crazed loner.

In fact all three of these murderers of non combatants had a political agenda that to them justified their actions, and all three had a political and ideological goal – this is the definition of a terrorist.

The reluctance of the West to identify it’s homegrown aggressors as terrorists is symptomatic of a widespread Islamophobia that defines terrorists as Muslims. Islamophobes perceive Islam as violent, aggressive, and supportive of terrorism. Islam is widely associated with terrorism, by Islamophobes, unlike other major religions, and largely as a consequence of the 9/11 attacks on the US. The term terrorist when  used in much Western media signifies cultural and emotional associations with Islam, indeed it has apparently become a metonym for Islam.

That this is the case was proved beyond doubt when global mainstream media initially declared the Norwegian terrorist to be an agent of Al Qaeda. With no evidence and little information, prominent commentators in the popular press made this assumption based solely on the nature of the attacks. When the gunman turned out to be an “Aryan poster boy” who expressed a loathing of Muslims and identified with right wing Christian fundamentalists (as well as our own homegrown John Howard, Cardinal Pell, Peter Costello and Keith Windschuttle, all of whom are quoted admiringly in Breivik’s manifesto) this came as something of a shock to the complacent, and as it turned out ignorant, purveyors of media misinformation.

In an aside, the Windschuttle link above will take you to Murdoch journalist Andrew Bolt‘s blog. There you’ll find the headline “The new blood libel of the Left,” underneath which Windschuttle presents his response on hearing of Breivik’s admiration of him and the Left’s “gleeful” reaction to this.

In another aside, the contentiously anti semitic term “blood libel” was used by Sarah Palin when she attempted to defend herself against charges that her extremist right wing rhetoric had inspired Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords is Jewish.

What a tangled web.

Murdoch’s minion Bolt, one of the many public voices who rushed to judgement, declared when he discovered the killer had ties to right wing Christians that Breivik was not really a Christian. Presumably this is because Christians don’t carry out such atrocities, while in Bolt’s book Muslims do.

At this moment it is likely of little interest to the families and friends of the Norwegian dead, and to the injured survivors of Breivik’s monstrous attacks whether he is defined by the rest of the world as a terrorist or a madman. Those of us less directly affected are privileged to be in a state of mind that permits these speculations. While it makes no immediate difference to the agony so many people must be feeling, it is important that those of us who can do have this discussion: we owe it to the dead and injured, and to those who mourn, to ensure that the truth be spoken as best as is possible about the man who brought this misery and loss down upon them, and about the world in which he developed his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim philosophy.

It is too easy to describe Breivik simply as crazed, though mentally unhinged he most certainly is. Breivik is also a terrorist. There is an argument that all terrorists are inevitably crazed, that the act of slaughtering civilians in the pursuit of a political and/or ideological goal is not the act of a sane person. Whether or not Breivik would meet the legal definition of insane is as yet undetermined but certainly colloquially there can be no doubt.

But that’s not the end of it. Breivik is also a product of the zeitgeist. Islamaphobia is everywhere. The beliefs that to him justified his rampage are everywhere. So widespread, so culturally embedded are they in the West, that his murderous actions were immediately attributed to the group he so powerfully loathed. It could only be Al Qaeda or its associates, for who else kills Westerners in a terrorist attack?

The irony is heartbreaking.

What we owe to the Norwegian dead and grieving is to seriously examine ourselves and the societies in which we live. While Breivik is an extremist and his actions are thank God extreme, scapegoating, anti-Muslim  and anti-immigration rhetoric and the beliefs that fueled his insanity are everywhere, and are increasingly normalized as they are sanctioned by the mainstream political system and the media that represents it.

We could start in our own back yards. For example, the Malaysian solution. Is it just a coincidence that the majority of the 800 asylum seekers we will send to Malaysia will be Muslim, while the majority of the 4,000 refugees we receive in return will be non Muslim?

Breivik did not kill Muslims, for all his hatred of them. He killed the young members of the Norwegian political party he believed was responsible for allowing Muslims into his country in greater numbers than was acceptable to him. He killed his own people. He is a domestic terrorist, like McVeigh and Loughner. Like McVeigh and Loughner, he is also crazy.

It can also be argued that any of these terrorists could have hung their craziness on whatever cause took their fancy, and this is also true. The impulse to slaughter and the capacity to act on the impulse is in their personalities. Politics and ideology did not make them into murderers. Politics and ideology offered them an avenue for the expression of their extreme violence and hatred.

As for the origins of that violence and hatred, we may never know. Many, many people endure difficulties and hardships in childhood and very few become terrorists. Many many people feel violent and hateful, but they do not act on those emotions. There are human beings whose pathology is inexplicable. But when there is a perfect storm of pathology and zeitgeist, the terrorist is born.

There is little we can do about the pathology.  About the zeitgeist we can do everything if we have the collective will. But we will need leaders who give a damn.

16 Responses to “Anders Behring Breivik: terrorist or madman?”

  1. gerard oosterman July 27, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    While terrorism in the West is always delegated to Islam, on the other side of the world, the Islamic world, terrorism might be seen as being the domain of the West, particularly the US. For instance the annihilation of tens, if not hundreds of thousands in Iraq, was hardly and act of benevolence, and based on the lie of W.O.M.D. The slaughter of thousands of those in Afghanistan could also be seen as terrorism perpetrated by the the West including us Australians.
    Terrorism in not just only owned by the Islamic world.
    As for the lone act of Breivik. He was just as deluded as Bolt and many others but acted out his delusions by having the weapons and the madness.. On hindsight, which is always too late, whereby his intentions were followed up by actions, it was clear he was dangerously psychotic and like many spychopaths, convincing enough in his ‘normal-ness’ to keep fooling those around him.


  2. paul walter July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    Bolt is as mentally disordered as Breivik. Are these people what medical people refer to as “psychopaths”?


    • Jennifer Wilson July 27, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

      Much as I dislike Bolt, I can’t in all conscience cast him in the same mould as Breivik!

      Yes, Breivik would be described as a psychopath, and there are degrees of psychopathy.


  3. gerard oosterman July 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    One never knows. Bolt might well pass some of the first criteria: This from the web on sociopath.

    Glibness and Superficial Charm.
    Manipulative and Conning
    They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.
    Grandiose Sense of Self
    Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.”
    Pathological Lying
    Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.


  4. paul walter July 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    Guess what this writer’s assessment of Bolt would be, on the criteria listed by Gerald.


    • Jennifer Wilson July 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

      Don’t tell me you think he’s “normal” Paul???? Just kidding.


  5. Sam Jandwich July 27, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Agree. In fact I was talking to a friend about this last night… in the context of Peter Harcher’s piece in the SMH a few days ago about how we shouldn’t draw too close a connection between this event in Norway and the general approach of the more right wing, xenophobic elements in European politics. And, as is our wont, my friend and I were relating one of Harcher’s lines about how a terrorist is defined as being a weak force which uses whatever means it has to combat a stronger force, with the question of domestic violence, and whether this was a parallel situation – ie that domestic batterers are people who feel disempowered through their place in society (including perhaps that they feel that the entitlements to which they feel, well, entitled, through enculturation or pathology, are denied to them), and who take out their frustrations by beating up the representative of the outside world in their homes – ie their spouse.

    And we concluded that, no matter how deprived or enculturated a person feels, they would still not be capable of being violent towards their spouse unless they were a complete bastard (ie non-empathetic, a sociopath etc). But that at the same time, even if they were a complete bastard they’d still have to have something to be angry about in order to become violent.

    And so it follows, that to commit a crime on the scale of Anders Breivik’s, you would have to be both thoroughly enculturated, *and* a complete bastard!

    And yes, I hope this serves as a wake-up call tothe xenophobes of this world (their binary opposites being the intellectuals… I actually don’t believe in the left-right dialectic) that they are in danger from the extremists in their midst, just as they are from the “other side”.


    • Jennifer Wilson July 27, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

      I’ve just finished putting the final touches to a chapter I’ve written for a forthcoming book on human rights, about intimate violence and how we need to frame it as human rights abuse. (Thank god, it’s been driving me nuts and then I had to edit somebody else’s and in between somebody persuaded me to take Zhumba classes. It’s been quite a month, and I love the Zhumba, but it’s wild!) There are academics and practitioners who refer to domestic violence as terrorism. As I wrote about Breivik, a person who is violent in their intimate relationships possesses a personality that allows him or her to act out impulses many people might feel, but have the control not to act out.

      I’ve always thought that having violent fantasies about what you’d like to do to someone who’s caused you pain is a pretty healthy way of dealing with difficult emotions, as long as you know the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s cathartic. This is one of the reasons I’m so irritated by those who wish to censor and ban – we need opportunities for catharsis.

      The descriptors sociopath and psychopath seem to apply to so many people they are becoming the norm.
      Keith Windschuttle has written a whining wounded piece in the Australian today about how everybody’s blaming him for the Norwegian massacre – and how the conservatives are always restrained and factual, in contrast with the hysterical left who resort to ad hominem abuse every five seconds. It’s pretty funny really. Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt restrained!

      Windy’s terribly upset, forget the Norwegian dead and injured, this has really offended Keith Windschuttle and the Australian gives him whining privileges – shocking. Bloody disgraceful. Someone tell these tossers it’s not all about them, not even a little bit about their offended feelings. And the bodies haven’t all been found and laid to rest before the ideologues make it their tragedy.


      • Sam Jandwich July 29, 2011 at 11:46 am #

        Make sure you let us know when it’s being published!

        Yes well, This friend of mine seems to be one of those people who attracts sociopathic men – because she gives a lot of herself. Her overall conception of men has been somewhat influenced by the ones she knows.

        I meanwhile am described as “non-gendered”!

        Whereas everyone I work with is really nice, so I think I tend to have an overly positive view of humanity. Hmmm are we all really that vulnerable to environmental influences, in spite of ourselves?


  6. gerard oosterman July 27, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    I find it difficult to overcome those ‘unlined by living’ faces of both Breivik and Bolt to accept that their xenophobic opinions and actions (by Breivik) are not sociopathetic signals.
    A man, like that confessed gambler on the last I&Q is the opposite and showed a face marked by having ‘lived’ a life so far. He could never turn into a sociopath. Compare that with the totally unmarked halos of both Breivik’s and Bolt’s faces, oozing with so much emptiness and nothingness, unworried about anything, ever.

    I would be so brave as to suggest that empty facial features could be signs of a sociopath.


    • Sam Jandwich July 29, 2011 at 11:36 am #

      That’s really interesting Gerard! I think you might be onto something there.

      One other thing I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is the possible association with Norwegian Black Metal. It’s always interested me how Norway has such a clean-living image, but at the same time is home to some of the most violent and despondent music around. Burzum and Darkthrone just give me a headache these days, but during the depths of my teenage years I thought they were onto something…

      But does anybody know whether Breivik was into this stuff?


    • Jennifer Wilson July 29, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      That would be an interesting area of study – as my grandmother used to say, “handsome is as handsome does.”

      It is true that psychopaths can have very low levels of anxiety. They can be quite affectless and apparently capable of passing lie detector tests because of this.

      Those of us with lines and wrinkles salute you, Gerard. They are a sign of our capacity to feel!


  7. James In Footscray July 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Quite true about Bolt’s double standards.

    He writes in relation to Breivik:

    “Scotland had its Thomas Hamilton, who shot 16 children and a teacher at the Dunblane Primary School. The United States had its Columbine killers, Australia its Martin Bryant.

    Rarely do we bother to ask what faith such men followed, or politics they preached, to understand why they killed so many people. They are mad.

    If anything, we look first for some short circuit in their psyche or deep wound in their childhood that left them with such a murderous rage and a frozen indifference to the suffering of others.”

    But at the same time he says:

    “We’ve also had Muslims jailed for plotting bombings in Canberra, while others have raised money for jihadists in Africa and Afghanistan, sold pro-jihad manuals at mosques, or joined Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia.

    There are many such reasons we’ve been given to link Islam to terrorism.”

    So religion is a red herring. Unless it’s Islam.

    Go figure!


    • Jennifer Wilson July 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

      I just watched John Pilger’s doco The War You Don’t See – that war criminal Blair is agitating for the invasion of Iran now, claiming, believe it or not, nuclear weapons. Is that anything to do with his conversion to Catholicism?


  8. paul walter August 1, 2011 at 12:13 am #

    Fading Labor right wingers dont die, they just become wilfully rather than acidentally perverse-a learned trait, it seems.


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