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The virtues of being mad: Anders Breivik and Europe's exoneration

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 28 July 2011


Societies, if we are to take the Freudian line, prefer to subordinate chaotic urges in favour of dull order. Civilization implies stability. By the nineteenth century, human society was digesting a range of theories on 'constants', be it in such matters as gravity or the speed of light. This, argues Ian Hacking, was largely due to a desire to tame chance. Those who seem fit to violate this are deemed aberrant, disorderly and reprobate.

The charge of madness and lunacy is therefore an ideal accusation, the perfect riposte against collective responsibility. The scene is set by observations that paint Norway as sylvan idyll that was rudely disrupted by the killings inflicted by Anders Breivik. Jack Knox, columnist for the Canadian Times Colonist, spoke of how frightened he was that 'the murders in Norway – sensible, peaceful affluent Norway' took place in a country 'so familiar, both in look and feel' (Jul 26). Was mother nature playing tricks?

In the Breivik case, the man's ideas and his deeds are convenient fused. He did these acts within a peaceful society (not Iraq, not Afghanistan), and must therefore be touching the fringes of the unstable. Closely allied to this is the suggestion that he is a fantasist, a delusionary who imagines plotting followers in cells awaiting the next crusading push. Such accusations make it tempting to dismiss Breivik's acts as singular, solitary and irrelevant to a broader European debate on culture and tolerance.

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The irrational sentiment is often misunderstood. It is not a valued commodity these days, even if, as Albert Camus recalls in his notebooks after the Second World War, it was the only thing that kept creativity alive. After all, rational beings created the gas chambers and camps running to the bellicose melodies of Richard Wagner. Breivik was, in a sense, placing a form of rationalism behind the gun.

Tidy labels of medical resort prevent self-analysis and vital questioning. Breivik's ramblings in his 1500 page manifesto have an interior coherence. Behind such terms as 'cultural Marxism' lie a traditional loathing that any advocate of minimalist government might feel. Government is the enemy, especially if it capitulates over its own ideals on such matters as free speech. (Breivik notes the Rushdie affair, and the cartoon incident.) In this, Breivik exhibits a close similarity with the reasoning of Oklahoma Bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people with a fertiliser bomb in 1995. Prior to being officially sentenced to death, McVeigh cited the dissenting words of Justice Brandeis in Olmstead v The United States. 'For good or for ill, [Government] teaches the whole people by its example.'

Breivik's distaste for multiculturalism is itself a traditional view by a member of a conservative society. In addition to this, studies in recent years have also shown that the radical right is becoming a serious presence in Europe. But what, exactly, is this radicalism about?

The report by the Berlin-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report (2008) found a good strain of old-fashioned xenophobia amongst a sampling of 1,000 persons across Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, France, Hungary, Italy, Germany and Portugal. True, an average of seventy percent of Europeans were positive to immigration, but 'about half of all European respondents said that there were too many immigrants in their country and that jobs should be given to non-immigrants first in times of crisis.' Disturbingly, the report found that a third of those surveyed still hold the view that there is 'a natural hierarchy of races', with whites at the top of the food chain.

Behind Breivik's observations of 'Islamisization' creeping across Europe lie a broadly felt suspicion of the deeds of the Prophet, whose Ottoman warriors were stemmed at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Broadly, he claims to be a cultural conservative Christian in that he shares a belief 'in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity, and moral platform.' 'At the age of 15 I chose to be baptised and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church.' The Christian label applies, claims Breivik, even to conservative Europeans who are professed agnostics.

Such attitudes suggest that politically stable institutions, unless they are complemented by cultural tolerance, make uncomfortable bedfellows. The liberalism of such societies as Norway, Denmark and Sweden is hard to challenge, but nor is the presence of emergent populism that frowns on the increased mobility of citizens within the EU and failed attempts to integrate displaced peoples, many from Islamic countries. On the other side of the fence, Breivik's desire to see a Muslim cleansing is not far removed from the claim of some Mullahs in Scandinavia who would wish Sharia law and a theocracy to be established within the environs of European society.

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Breivik's lawyer has attempted to lead the lunacy charge by a plea to the court of insanity. It is very much society's escape clause. Breivik gets off murder and gets into a ward to be medicated for the rest of his life; European society is left off the hook – after all, to take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, only one man did it.

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This article was first published in CounterPunch on 27 July, 2011.



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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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