Anders Behring Breivik

I feel conflicted about bringing more attention to this murderer, given how men like him often relish in it. But I must confess a morbid fascination – a mix of disgust, shock, and sheer wonder – at how evil a human being  like him can be. Whenever an act of senseless and cold-blooded brutality is perpetrated, we almost reflexively explain it away as a product of insanity: only a person with a warped and abnormal mind could kill so many people with little empathy or regret.

But from what can be discerned, this wasn’t a spontaneous or psychotic outburst – it was premeditated and strategically calculated months in advance. He compiled a 1,516-page manifesto consisting of propaganda, plans for the attack, and even personal confessions. In it, he expressed support or sympathy towards a wide-rage of extremist beliefs: xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, fa-right Zionism, Islamophobia, right-wing populism, cultural conservativism, anti-Marxism, and anti-multiculturalism. He even outlines an ideal dress-code, which he apparently finds valuable, and enjoys being seen only in Freemason garb or military attire. This was clearly man with a sophisticated political and ideological basis for his actions.

Among those who he described as influences and sources of admiration are the Freedom Party of Austria, the Hindu nationalist movement (known properly Hindutva), the right-wing Swiss People’s PartyWinston Churchill, Norwegian resistance hero Max Manus, Islam critic Robert Spencer, former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, Patrick Buchanan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Even a quote by philosopher John Stuart Mill was paraphrased: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” A disturbing indication of how valuable he thought his cause was.

On a side note: Breivik has variously been described as a Christian terrorist, Christian fundamentalist, or right-wing Christian. As far as we can tell, his religious views are ambigious: he describes himself as either Christian or “cultural Christian,” admits to not being “excessively religious,” and even claims to have no personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ; at the same time, however, he expressed an intention to pray to God for his actions to succeed, and seemed keen on the scenario of a clash between Christendom versus Islamism. Ultimately, I reject any definitive labels with respect to his beliefs, and I frankly think that some on the left are exaggerating his religious motivations for the sake of trying to equalize Christianity’s proclivity for terrorism with Islam’s.  – but that’s a discussion for a different day.

>>>>[Edit] It’s been brought to my attention by a friend that there is some evidence of a strong theocratic basis for Breivik’s actions. Watch the video here and decide for yourselves.<<<<

While he is currently undergoing examination by psychiatrists – following claims by his defense attorney that he is insane – experts agree that there is little to suggest he suffers from insanity. He described his actions as self-awarely “atrocious” but “necessary,” and denies any criminal responsibility. He’s also made a number of bizarre egotistical requests since his arrest, while those who knew him describe a man that was peculiar and egotistical, but far from displaying potential anti-social behavior (it seems typical that killers, prior to their crimes, display a certain oddness to them while nonetheless bearing no signs of any potential for the horrible things they end up committing).

However, he has been diagnosed with “malignant narcissism,” a psychological disorder that may popularly  be considered to fall under colloqually notions of insanity. But for all intents and purposes, this was a man who knew exactly what he was doing and why. When you combine extreme ideologies with narcissism, a sense of purpose, and a pathological lack of empathy, you have the recipe for a mass-murdering terrorist ideologue. In an age where ideas can diffuse very easily, and like-minded people can connect with each other from across the globe, this is certainly something to be concerned about (though on the other hand, this same technology can be used to proliferate counter views, and can be utilized by law enforcement).

I have no doubt that Breivik enjoys all this and likely he seems himself as having fought for a noble cause. Indeed, no evil person ever sees their acts as such: they’re just doing what they perceive to be the right thing. Even during his incarceration, the Oslo killer is already writing up speeches and composing more sociopolitical propaganda. He’ll no doubt receive life in prison without the possibility of parole – Norway, like most of Europe, has abolished the death penalty – and will be put in solitary confinement.  He’ll certainly spend his days continuing to espouse and refine his ideology, perhaps even inspiring similar ideologues (as he himself was).

I’m curious as to the effect all this will have on Norway, a nation that’s long been viewed as “innocent” when it comes to experiencing these sorts of tragedies. It’s historically been a very tolerant, open, and relaxed society, and despite the emergence of an ultra-nationalist like Breivik, it has far fewer problems with immigration and multiculturalism that most of Europe does. There could be a rise of right-wing militancy, or a development of reactionary actions against strong partisan rhetoric. Norwegians may become less carefree about their relatively lax gun laws; gun politics, which is pretty much nonexistent, might emerge as it tends to following these kind of events. A cultural of “securitrization” may take hold, much as it did in America following the 9/11 attacks. Or maybe Norway will simply move on from all of this.

Ultimately, that’s what makes these sorts of murderous, ideological figures so fascinating. Their characteristics, eccentricities, and ideologies stand out and captivate our imagination, in the same way the Charles Manson, the Unabomber, or Osama Bin Laden still do. We’re appalled and awed at the capacity for human beings to do such horrible things and maintain such violent beliefs, all while displaying none of the remorse, reflection, and empathy that we expect of all people. Most of all, these single individuals can influence millions of people, or even the entire world, and become empowered not only by the gravity of the actions they commit, but by the effect they have on society and it’s perceptions. These people become immortalized by the communities they impact, becoming a shorthand for evil incarnate or a cult-like figure for would-be followers – exactly what they often intended to achieve.

2 comments on “Anders Behring Breivik

  1. Romney,

    Really good descriptions here. I read through about 25 pages of his “Manifesto” (which contained large amounts plagiarized from the unabomber, surprise surprise). It was complete and utter dreck. Like the unabomber’s document, there was an awful lot of rhetoric but really no argument. it was rambling, running from this thing to that, and one can definitely see that his quotations – as wide ranging as they are – are very “cherry picked” and often quite distorted from their original context.

    I love your statement: “When you combine extreme ideologies with narcissism, a sense of purpose, and a pathological lack of empathy, you have the recipe for a mass-murdering terrorist ideologue.”

    You might want to read Simon Baron-Cohen’s latest book that is about exactly this – he uses psychological research to show that lack of empathy, which is often correlated with antisocial tendencies, very often leads people toward violence.

    • Thanks for the enlightened response Kevin! And I am familiar with Cohen – he wrote the book called Zero Empathy or something, right? I believe he argued for the idea that lack of empathy was basically a disease to be treated.

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