The crimes of Anders Behring Brivik prompt difficult questions that we cannot skirt around by claiming he is evil incarnate or mentally ill.
As a Swede, I have been following the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, Norway’s terrorist and mass murderer, closely through the Swedish press. I was shocked by what happened in Norway last July and have been reading transcripts of the court proceedings and other reports to try to understand better how it was possible for it to take place.
I remember being stupefied when I first heard about the killings. I never imagined that such a thing could happen in Norway, which had alwaysseemed the most perfect place in the world to me.
It was as if evil had stepped into paradise. And I could not get my head around the fact that an intelligent and well-to-do person, who had grown up in that society, could turn against it, devoting all his energies, all his resources – indeed his entire life – to killing as many of its members as possible.
Sometimes people imply that to understand is to condone, but surely you can condemn someone all the more powerfully if you first understand what drove them to commit their crime – all their weaknesses, all their delusions, their arrogance, narcissism and inhumanity.
I think that it would do a disservice to his victims if we treated Breivik like a caricature, a straw man fit only for vilification and dehumanisation. His crime prompts difficult questions that we cannot skirt around by claiming that he is evil incarnate or that he is mentally ill.
With that in mind, I think that the Swedish media – and I imagine the Norwegian media too – are doing an outstanding job in covering the trial. There is not an ounce of sympathy for what Breivik did, yet there is a great deal of effort in trying to understand how he could commit his heinous crimes.
In a way we are compelled to try to understand him, because he is one of us: he speaks a language that we can understand and has grown up in a society and culture similar to our own. He is a mirror of us, and we find ourselves staring fixedly into that mirror to try to understand what, after all, sets him apart from us.
• “I dag er vi alle norske” 24 Jul 2011
• Norway’s day of terror 23 Jul 2011
One thing that makes Breivik such a disturbing person is that little in his life story seems to have predestined him to become the worst mass murderer in Norway’s postwar history. Yes, he had a difficult relationship to his father, and, yes, psychiatrists feared for his mental health when he was four years old, but that is light years from saying that he was bound to do what he did.
Discussions about his mental health do not give much comfort. One psychiatric examination found him to be paranoid schizophrenic and hence not accountable for his crimes, but another one concluded that he has no serious psychological disorder.
Breivik himself insists, heatedly, that he is completely sane. Some experts believe that he has an empathic disorder, otherwise he would not have been capable of carrying out his crime, as one Swedish psychiatrist put it.
Breivik denies this, too, claiming that he can switch his empathy on and off and that he has learned to keep his emotions in check through meditation and various other strategies.
While it is difficult to imagine that a person with a healthy sense of empathy can kill seventy-seven people in cold blood, I think that these discussions are, to an extent, beside the point. It is true the state of Breivik’s mental health is an important part of the puzzle of why he could commit the massacres in Oslo and Utøya, but it should not blind us to the fact that he is still a human being, like ourselves, who very deliberately took a series of steps to commit mass murder.
One of the things that have struck me in his testimony is the importance accorded to his ideas about cultural Marxism and Islamicisation. He talks about having submitted to these ideas, turning himself into a “foot soldier of the conservative nationalist revolution,” and sees his actions as the logical outcomes of a diagnosis that Norway and Europe are being threatened by cultural relativism and Islamic immigration.
He says he sacrificed his own freedom and reputation in order to serve the higher agenda of cleansing Europe of alien influences and restoring its essential Christian identity. In his mind, this agenda is more important than either the lives of his victims or his own morality.
“One hundred voices told me ‘don’t do it, don’t do it’,” he said during the trial when describing how he killed his first victims on Utøya. “Taking a person’s life is the most difficult thing you can do…It goes against human nature,” he said later.
And yet he did it. Sixty-seven times he shot and killed a human being, usually at close range, sometimes when they were begging for their lives. He defiled his human nature to put himself at the service of an idea, blinding himself to his own and his victims’ humanity in order to carry out an atrocity.
He strikes me as a kind of modern-day Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, so seized by an idea that it trumps, in his mind, every human instinct, every predilection for empathy and restraint.
Where Raskolnikov’s world view was warped by sickness, poverty and the nihilistic discussions in the student community in St. Petersburg, Breivik drew his intellectual nourishment from online extremist forums, visited from a computer hooked up in the posher parts of Oslo or near the isolated farm where he was preparing for his crime.
And like Raskolnikov, Breivik is guilty of staggering arrogance, believing that he has seen the truth and been compelled to act according to it. He is persuaded that it was through will power alone that he transcended his human inhibitions, which would otherwise have weakened him and prevented him from doing what was right.
He does not realise that, most of all, it was his fanaticism that blinded him, giving him that tunnel vision that removed every shred of doubt, every inkling of modesty and humility that might have prompted in him the questions, “What if I am wrong? What if the world is more complex than I can comprehend?”
No such doubts seem to have figured in his world view. The propaganda movie that he released on the day of his crime moved him to tears when he saw it in court, yet it is a badly argued, horribly produced piece, with gaping logical leaps and factual flaws (not to mention that some of the text in it has been cut and pasted from Wikipedia).
To think that the ideas conveyed by that clip inspired in him the passion to commit his massacres defies reason. Yet somehow they did. Somehow in his intellectual self-isolation he gradually stopped seeing people as people but instead as pawns in a struggle between abstract ideals.
People were accidental to this struggle, mere carriers of the ideas that truly mattered. And for this reason they could be disposed of, in the same manner that fanatics around the world are ready to eliminate people who get in the way of the higher objective.
It was the triumph of abstraction over life and humanity, the victory of arrogance over humility and self-questioning. Maybe one day, in his comfortable cell in the high-security prison of Halden, Breivik will realise the utter vacuity and horror of what he did.
If that day comes, I think his soul will be torn to shreds.