Thoughts on Anders Behring Breivik

I’ve held off on commenting on the mass murders in Norway. Partly this was simply the result of a busy weekend (and I still can’t claim that I’ve managed to plow through more than a fraction of Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto). But partly it was from a sense of unease with how easily these kind of discussions, based on limited and rapidly-changing information, can turn into a sort of unseemly “gotcha” politics. It was certainly disconcerting how quickly prominent hawks leaped to blame Muslims for the attacks in the absence of any hard evidence. But although the worm has turned and it now appears that Breivik’s politics were inspired by many of these same right-wing hawks, it remains necessary for our side to show greater restraint than they did, and keep in mind that there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the story.

With those preliminaries aside, a few thoughts:

1) It’s become clear that Breivik’s political views were drawn in large part from the writings of “anti-jihad” writers in Europe and the U.S. I’ve written about many of these writers in the past — folks like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Mark Steyn, Andy McCarthy — and it’s fair to say that I don’t have much sympathy for their views; I think they’re ignorant, bigoted, and frequently hysterical. But ignorance, bigotry, and hysteria are very different from the mass murder of innocent civilians. So while it’s perfectly legitimate to fault the Gellers and McCarthys of the world for fostering an atmosphere of apocalyptic alarmism about Islam, let’s be clear that none of them has ever legitimated or called for anything resembling Breivik’s actions.

2) But if the “anti-jihadists” are within their rights to object to being tarred with Breivik’s actions, one would nonetheless hope that the atrocity in Norway would prompt some degree of introspection on their part — some reflection on how it was that this person (however crazy or evil) took their work as justification for mass slaughter. Unfortunately, such introspection has been in short supply. Mark Steyn and Andy McCarthy have typically glib responses, in which they breezily deny that there might be any connection between Breivik’s politics and their own.

Their arguments are unconvincing and in places downright silly. Can Steyn actually believe, for instance, that just because Breivik’s victims were white Christians the entire Islamophobia angle on the killings is therefore simply a distraction? As even a cursory skimming of Breivik’s writings will show, Breivik’s main criticism of the European ruling elite is that they are too decadent, relativist, and multiculturalist to stop the threat from Muslim immigrants. (They’re “supporters of European multiculturalism and therefore supporters of the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe,” he writes at the beginning of his manifesto.) Perhaps this might ring a bell for Steyn, since he’s written a book arguing precisely the same thesis. (It’s also striking how many of the keywords — “lack of cultural self-confidence,” “national suicide” — are the same.) Insofar as we can perceive a motive for Breivik’s attack, it appears to be that the mass slaughter of the future Norwegian political elite would be a shock that would force Europe to awake to the Muslim threat.

3) As always, the double standards involved in the treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim terrorists are highly revealing. Molly Ziegler Hemingway, for instance, attacks the media for labeling Breivik a “Christian extremist.” He may be both a Christian and an extremist, Hemingway suggests, but there’s little evidence that his Christianity was a central cause of his rampage — he’s more of an extremist-who-happens-to-be-Christian. This is a fair point, but it’s striking that such logic virtually never gets applied to Muslim militants — “radical Islam” is trotted out as an all-purpose explanation regardless of the militant’s specific beliefs and grievances. (Witness the Fort Hood shooting, where the right was eager to downplay all of Nidal Hasan’s concrete political grievances and to focus on his religion as the sole and sufficient cause of his rampage.)

Similarly, it’s been revealing to see so many of the “anti-jihadists” draw a strict differentiation between violent and non-violent forms of politics, and suggest that even if Breivik shares many of their political goals, his use of violence utterly differentiates him from them. Again, this may be a fair point — but it’s precisely the distinction that they frequently deny when it comes to Muslims. Andy McCarthy’s The Grand Jihad, for instance, argues at great length that the threat from Muslim violence is largely a red herring, that the more insidious threat is from religious Muslims pursuing their goals peacefully through the political process, and that these peaceful Muslims (or “peaceful” Muslims, to adopt his gratuitous use of scare quotes) should essentially be viewed as no different from the terrorists. Of course, applying the same logic to the anti-jihadists would suggest that there’s little distinction between a McCarthy on the one hand and a Breivik on the other. If McCarthy and his compatriots don’t like this conclusion (which I myself don’t share) then perhaps they should reevaluate the premises that led them to their Islamophobic alarmism.

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Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.

4 Comments

  1. “But ignorance, bigotry, and hysteria are very different from the mass murder of innocent civilians. So while it’s perfectly legitimate to fault the Gellers and McCarthys of the world for fostering an atmosphere of apocalyptic alarmism about Islam, let’s be clear that none of them has ever legitimated or called for anything resembling Breivik’s actions.”

    Really? What would you expect their rantings and demonizations to end in? Obviously their entire lives and political activities are based on what Hitler’s similar ranting against Jews ended in.

    But let’s do be clear about what the real agenda of the zionist types like Geller & Co. is all about…besides “non violently” bombing Iran. LOL
    Multicuturalism, their latest boggieman for Muslim citizens and immigrants, is, in their own words, a threat to the Jews, most particulary in the US because the US is the sole source of power for Israel. They fear that empowered and affluent US Muslims would lessen their own political control of US policy.

  2. Dan, I really have been intrigued by the last point you strike there. The lack of equivalence between right-wing, yet western, extremism and that of the Islamist variety disturbs me. I’ve noticed that since the initial reports (erroneously claiming an islamic root to the attacks) the very use of the word terrorist has fallen to the wayside.

    Most disturbing in this course of events was a comment I read earlier regarding Breivik from his defense attorney, Geir Lippestad: “This whole case has indicated that he’s insane.” So a 1500 page polemic by a right-wing Islamophobe results in insanity while the same from an Islamist is seen as a legitimate call to violence that requires direct state-led violence to put down.

    I can’t say I’m terribly surprised, but it’s disheartening to see unnecessary lines being drawn between extremists for whom, for all intensive purposes, the insidious threat of the other results in a very similar vein of thought and tragic action.

  3. “Similarly, it’s been revealing to see so many of the “anti-jihadists” draw a strict differentiation between violent and non-violent forms of politics, and suggest that even if Breivik shares many of their political goals, his use of violence utterly differentiates him from them. Again, this may be a fair point — but it’s precisely the distinction that they frequently deny when it comes to Muslims.”

    no, imho this is not a fair point.

    those who earn there paychecks advocating the use of their fellow citizens taxdollars to rain down hellfire rockets on homo sapiens in Yemen, Gaza, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran are not in anyway or form engaging in a non-violent form of politics.

    veterans of the right-wing cause like american establishment figure Elliot Abrams have had decades of experience cheerleading various right-wing state terrorist attacks from El Salvador to East Timor to Gaza and beyond.

  4. Fair comment. One caveat: wouldn’t you agree that Hassan’s “political grievances” stemmed from his being a Muslim, i.e., were intimately connected with his faith? Had he been a Christian or a Jew, would he have pulled the trigger? Seems more than doubtful to me.

    Good luck plowing through 1,500 pages of Breivik’s fulminations. I’ll wait for the condensed version.

    Is Breivik sane? I would say he is. Like the Unabomber, he’s undoubtedly neurotic, but then who isn’t? This tragedy should not be dismissed simply as the work of a madman. I hope certain people don’t get away with saying he’s a raving looney — he’s not.

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