What do we know about Anders Behring Breivik? Very little

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norway terror attacker, may just have been a lone extremist; we should stop speculating, says Dr Robert Ford of Manchester University.

Dr Robert Ford is a research fellow in politics at the Institute for Social Change, University of Manchester; his research can be found here

The events in Norway over the past weekend have horrified and disgusted us all. Yet in the inevitable avalanche of commentary, most of it based on little or no factual evidence, we are already seeing the emergence of some familiar media tropes.

The extremist cannot be a lone fanatic; he must be a representative of some broader social movement, which “tacitly” supports such behaviour even if they don’t act themselves; we must learn the lessons from this tragedy and expunge the broader threat from our society.

There is no small irony in this, for this belief that madmen must always be representative of some broader social ill, is precisely the line of thinking frequently perpetrated by radical right politicians in their efforts to stigmatise millions of Muslims or migrants with the fanaticism or criminality of a tiny minority. Now those only too willing to employ fear and hatred find themselves to be its target.

This may bring some benefits. The growing hostility of European citizens to their Muslim minorities, and the stoking of this hostility by fear-mongering politicians and journalists, has received too little critical scrutiny.

It will do no harm to subject these agents of intolerance to closer examination. It will also do no harm to see the legitimacy of arguments made against whole religions or ethnic groups called into question. Yet too often our press and pundits are not engaging in careful reflection or critical analysis in the light of Norway’s tragedy.

Instead, they are engaging in a frenzy of speculation about what motivated Anders Behring Breivik and what his actions mean. Hardly any of this speculation seems grounded in evidence.

Let us take three of the most prominent claims.

Breivik’s extremism was encouraged by the overheated rhetoric of the internet, according to Ed West in the Daily Telegraph:

“Breivik the monster was a manifestation of the internet, the blogosphere, and its tendency to drive some individuals to ever more extreme views.”

Really? If this is so, then we may wonder why the rise of internet blogs over the past decade or so has not triggered an epidemic of murderous gunmen. I know of no research that shows any evidence of a link between any form of internet blog consumption and violence. Perhaps Ed West knows better? What is the basis for his claim?

Anders Breivik is being held up as an extreme example of a broader organised movement, which we should now apparently be worrying about a great deal.

Nationalists pose a “bigger threat than al-Qaeda”, claims Robert Lambert of the European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter. Maybe this is so, but I haven’t seen anything demonstrating that Breivik was linked to a broader terrorist movement, and the cases Lambert cites in his blog post don’t seem to be either.

I have seen no evidence put forward to demonstrate the existence of an organised far-right terror network, rather than a handful of crazed loners sharing certain paranoid delusions. If research has been done on this issue, and demonstrates the existence of such violent far right terror networks, then by all means it should be out in the public domain.

In the absence of such research, I don’t see the value of scaring people with speculation.

Previous lone gunmen turned out to be representative of nothing at all. Was Theodore Kaczynski representative of a broader American reaction against alienated modern societies, as his writings claimed? No. Was Timothy McVeigh firing the first shots in an armed insurrection against the US Federal government, as he hoped? No.

And there have been plenty of massacres whose perpetrators have no obvious political beliefs at all, such as the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 or Derrick Bird’s Cumbrian killing spree in 2010.

We are also being told an extreme right ideology demonising Muslims and immigrants helped motivate Brevik.

Adam Bienkov at Liberal Conspiracy claims:

“The Anders Breiviks of this world do not emerge from nowhere… they are fostered by an ideology.”

Is there any evidence to back up this claim? Bienkov doesn’t provide any. I know of no research showing massacres occur more frequently in countries with prominent extreme right movements than in countries without such movements, which is what we would expect if extremist ideology encourages murderous acts.

In fact, one major piece of research on this area, by Dutch political scientist Ruud Koopmans – “Explaining the rise of racist and extreme right violence in Western Europe: Grievances or opportunities?”, European Journal of Political Research, 2006 – suggests the opposite is true.

Perhaps someone has done more recent work demonstrating a link. If so, they should talk to the press. Otherwise, it seems just as likely Brevik sought an ideology which happened fit his existing murderous paranoia. Previous armed lunatics have always found some mad narrative of persecution, conspiracy and fear to justify their acts.

We should not be too harsh on journalists’ search for culprits and context. The universal reaction to tragedy is to demand explanations for the horror, and ways to prevent it from happening again. There is little comfort in the idea that violent loners are found in all societies, and don’t seem to be driven by anything in particular. So it is natural for journalists to respond to the public demand for explanations, the need for tragedy to be placed into a broader context.

Academics should take a different view. We are all under pressure to demonstrate the relevance of our own research, to engage with public debate and so forth, but we should not give in to the temptation to comment on things we know little about. I am a political scientist. What do I know about what motivates a madman, or what his actions mean? Very little.

I can’t tell you if Anders Brevik’s beliefs about Muslims, or multiculturalism, or his past associations with the far right, or his obsessive reading and posting on internet blogs, played any role in driving his actions. I can’t tell you if this massacre is an isolated incident or part of a larger problem. I don’t know.

Instead of offering speculations, or reinforcing those of journalists, I would like to put forward the very real possibility that murderous loners like Anders Brevik have no common background, no common cause, no organisation, and no common motivation. They represent nothing beyond themselves.

This should be our working theory until we see, or research produces, compelling evidence to the contrary. Repugnant though many of their beliefs may be, it is no more defensible to hold the EDL or the BNP somehow responsible for the acts of Anders Brevik than it is for those organisations to hold Islam responsible for the acts of Osama Bin Laden or the 7/7 bombers.

Finding someone to blame, and something to do, may be cathartic, but it is a substitute for thinking. Painful though it may be, we must admit that sometimes there is no one to blame but the madman, and no broader meaning to the tragedy he has committed.

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66 Responses to “What do we know about Anders Behring Breivik? Very little”

  1. Look Left – Just when you thought hackgate couldn’t get any worse... | Left Foot Forward

    […] little according to Dr Robert Ford of Manchester University’s Institute for Social Change, who wrote on Left Foot Forward on Tuesday: “I can’t tell you if Anders Breivik’s beliefs about Muslims, […]

  2. Mattias Karlsson

    Enligt Dr. Robert Ford (Manchester University) finns ingen senare forskning som motsäger rapporten i föregående tweet: http://t.co/w8kRgev

  3. Therese Borg

    Enligt Dr. Robert Ford (Manchester University) finns ingen senare forskning som motsäger rapporten i föregående tweet: http://t.co/w8kRgev

  4. Harald Strømme

    @rossavik @martingruner @privat God og relevant artikkel fra venstre fløy: http://t.co/v2L8T6s

  5. Vidar NordliMathisen

    @rossavik @martingruner @privat God og relevant artikkel fra venstre fløy: http://t.co/v2L8T6s

  6. Pedro Pizano

    What do we know about Anders Behring Breivik? Very little : http://bit.ly/qfFsub #Oslo #utoya #Norway. A must read.

  7. Leif Knutsen

    RT @Stromme: God og relevant artikkel fra @leftfootfwd: http://bit.ly/pwkBrb | faktisk helt treffende

  8. Leif Knutsen

    @vampus ja, nevnt bl.a. denne artikkelen http://bit.ly/pwkBrb, forskning av Ruud Koopmans, publisert i European Journal of Political Res.

  9. Steinar Bleken

    @vampus En som hevder det ikke finnes gode tall og forskning på temaet http://bit.ly/pwkBrb

  10. Steinar Bleken

    Artikkel som hevder at vi ikke vet om åpne ekstreme meninger gir næring eller reduserer faren for esktreme handlinger http://bit.ly/pwkBrb

  11. Ann Markström

    @rossavik @martingruner @privat God og relevant artikkel fra venstre fløy: http://t.co/v2L8T6s

  12. Gøran Skaalmo

    @VGfrithjof Såvidt. Men denne bedre: http://t.co/tBDAqzH

  13. KarianneBjellåsGilje

    @VGfrithjof @skaalmo Takk for tipset om Ford – interessant innlegg! http://t.co/poskRBG

  14. Børge Anderssen

    An excellent read: "What do we know about Anders Behring Breivik? Very little" by Dr Robert Ford. http://t.co/ITsym5r

  15. Anonymous


    Since energy usage has become the equivalent of harlotry, murder& adultery, energy users are being threatened with the lake of fire by Adam, Eve & the Lord Jesus Christ. I am now married to Anders Behring Breivik 09/20/2011 by the Lord Jesus Christ. I already have children, grandchildren & great grandchildren. Thank you for reading.

    GOD IS NOT WILLING THAT ANY SHOULD PERISH, BUT THAT ALL MIGHT BELIEVE ON HIS NAME-JESUS. Repent & be baptized! Jesus said, “I am God there is none besides me.” “I am the Way, the Truth & the Life. No man comes to the Father except by me.” “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “As many as received Him to them He gave the power to become the sons of God the Father even to those who believe on His name.” Jesus’ healing ministry began with adult baptism.

    A New Agenda: We the people need no gas & no electric to have a man child with the spouses of our youth around the world. We shall build homes without electric, without gas, without roofs that exceed 7 & 1/2 feet, & with incinerators to burn garbage, burn dung, burn urine, & burn blood rags so that the entire sisterhood has a man child with the husbands of their youth.

    TAKE MY CONFESSION WITH YOU. I have smoked cigars for 11 years & have no lungs, liver & kidneys at 45 years old. I continue to live through the Lord Jesus Christ as I received the Holy Spirit at 4 years old & was baptized as an adult in 1997. I continue to read my Bible& now use burned dung, urine, blood rags& tobacco butts to make meat offerings to eat. The Old Testament says that burned dung, urine, & blood rags were a part of the laws of Moses. Yes, it was in 2001 while I was driving to Florida that I was talking to the saints in heaven& Isaiah said, “You know that 70 years from now the sun will be dimmed in the sky” Oh, I said, “I don’t know.” I went back over the Old Testament& it said, “The sun shall be dimmed in the sky” & “I shall make them eat the grass of the field.” & “all these things shall come to pass” before theLord Jesus Christ returns.

    4 years ago I was stamping my feet at work over the excessive electric usage & complaining that I didn’t have a husband & children to God the Father. I prayed, kneeling at my bed as to adopting children. Then while I was at work I adopted over 500 children in Swahili (I was born with a spot-was a reject in Hebrew) to find out what day it was. I had been taught prophesy at Wheaton Evangelical Free Churchin 1979 & 1980. We went back & forth in time while Governor Blagovich was verifying. We came up with 17 years of darkened sun before July 29, 2081.

    July 29, 2081-the rapture of believers in Christ Jesus-all those who received the Holy Spirit-at the trumpet sound in heaven-1st the dead & then the living ascended to heaven in a twinkling of an eye

    July 29, 2081-2088-the Great Tribulation-God’s wrath is poured out on the earth, Judgment of the Believers in Christ Jesus & the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in heaven

    2088-3057-the Reign of Christ Jesus-(the Bible stated “1000 years” & in actuality it was 969 years)

    3057-3059-the Devil is loosed out of the pit –(the Bible stated “a time & a half” & in actuality it was 1 & three fourths years)-the battle of Armageddon-the nations are drawn together for the last battle in the Valley of Megiddo-the Lord Jesus comes down of a white horse with the words, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords” written on His thigh & a sword comes out of His mouth to destroy all who are in the battle. The bible says that the blood runs a “horses’ bridle high” & birds feed on the bodies.

    3059-the old heavens& the old earth pass away & the new heavens & new earth are created by the Lord Jesus Christ-at this point in time the Lord Jesus says,“Depart from me I never knew you.” to all who died in the battle of Armageddon, to those who took the mark of the beast in their right hand or forehead during the tribulation, to all who died during our time without receiving the Holy Spirit, & to all those who died during the flood of Noah’s day in wickedness. Jesus says, “In this world you shall have trouble, but I have overcome the world.”

    Jesus says, “If we confess our sins He is faithful & just to forgive us our sins & to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Blessed are those whose sins are covered to whom the arm of the Lord has been revealed.

    Sincerely through Lord Jesus Christ, Allison Grace Karalus

  16. Rob Ford

    Those willing to think before convicting entire French Muslim community, check out my earlier piece on Breivik: http://t.co/5slFnjsd 1/2

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