Friday, 24 August 2012

Breivik - Totally Sane and a Complete Bastard

And so the verdict is in: by a unanimous decision of five judges, a Norwegian Court in Oslo has found Anders Breivik, the xenophobic terrorist who butchered 77 people last year, to be completely sane. He has been sentenced to a minimum of 21 years in prison - the maximum under Norwegian law - which can be extended in 5 year tranches if he is considered to remain a threat to society.

Ironically, the prosecution was keen to find him insane and apparently even now may conceivably appeal on this point.

However, this seems to typify the reaction so common when a white man slaughters people in the name of a political creed - in Breivik's case, white supremacy and Nordic racism. Within hours of his murder of scores of young socialists on the island of Utoya, the media and others were declaring him sick, mad, the product of a broken family, a loner obsessed with violent video games, and so on.

Strikingly, the media often does this with rightwing white terrorists - in spite of their normal revulsion of excuses for criminal activities, they all too frequently hurry to explain their excesses as mental aberrations and write them a get out of jail free pass. We don't hear the same excuses about other terrorists - they don't write about Osama being ignored by his Mum, or the 9/11 bombers being gripped by paranoid delusions: their activities are correctly ascribed to their ideology; so why not Breivik's and the likes of Timothy McVeigh as well?

Everything would have been different if only Osama's parents
had let him watch "The Prisoner"
Yet in truth, Breivik and his muderous activities, while maybe superficially inexplicable to the many ordinary citizens who would never contemplate such extreme acts whatever their views, are not so inexplicable at all. They are simply the tip of a very dangerous iceberg of hatred which we ignore at our peril. Look at the messages of support he got from rightwingers across Europe on web boards; or the excusatory comments to be found written by Daily Mail readers under the articles about him of the "it's terrible but not surprising.." variety. Breivik is responsible for his own actions, but the slaughter of Utoya, by his own admission, was in part inspired by the commentaries published by journalists like the odious Melanie Philips. His manifesto took their extreme views and moved them on a few stages to what was, for him, a perfectly logical conclusion.

Supremacist ideologies lend themselves to violence - we have seen that time and again, from the anti-Semitism of the Nazis to the "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs in Bosnia, or the current spate of murderous assaults on Christians by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Breivik and his acolytes may spend most of their time in their bedrooms online, devising fantastical pseudo-organisations with kitsch medieval names and symbols, but that does not make them mad, nor any less dangerous.

Utoya, Srebrenica, Zaria, Kaduna - cultural supremacists of different nationalities and faiths continue the slaughter of the innocent, use violence in place of argument and twist sometimes genuine grievances into weapons of scapegoating and hatred. Their acts betray their own deep insecurities about themselves and degrade the very cultures they claim to defend or promote, but that does not give any credence to writing them off as aberrations, excusing their wider societies of their own (and our own) failures to be inclusive and humane with each other and with strangers.

It may offend those of us with inherent liberal beliefs in the fundamental goodness of humans, but for whatever reasons, the people who would bomb and kill others in the name of culture are usually far from insane, no matter how unpalatable their beliefs. In so many ways, they are simply the extreme manifestation of their own societies, of the savagery that lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilisation which can so easily be stripped away - just look at how quickly ordinary people were committing the most gross acts against their neighbours in former Yugoslavia, or in Rwanda, or Chechnya, or scores of other places at many times in history.

So they are not mad and indeed the act of declaring their actions necessarily insane both reinforces totally inappropriate stereotypes about mental health and completely misses the real causes of the atrocities they commit. In the film Downfall, Adolf Hitler was powerfully portrayed as a dark-minded, manipulative and angry human being -  causing great offence to many, not because it was in any way inaccurate, but because by showing how banal and even normal evil can be, it conveyed the very uncomfortable truth that such terrible acts can be carried out by someone who is ultimately just flesh and blood, like any of us.

And so the people who blow up cars in streets or detonate bombs on underground trains or shoot defenceless teenagers in the name of defending culture or religion are not insane at all - but they are very, very bad. And rather than writing them off as not responsible for their actions and in the process exculpating ourselves, we must certainly resist them with every breath we can find. But to begin with, we need to take a very, very long look at ourselves and our societies and how they can so easily provide the fertile ground for the poisonous seeds like Breivik to bud and bloom so very, very tragically.

1 comment:

  1. It is also worth noting that rather a lot of people in society are more than capable of such atrocities ... just consider the turned away posture to drones in afghanisatn and the situation in Syria ... Mass slaughter is seen as normal in some contexts. This is about more than just political ideology, it is a symptom of a society where the majority have lost their humanity. It must be remembered that the common mass outpouring of grief over these issues is invariable melodramatic and IMO fake.