Cold, clinical and sane: The only thing Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack must change is far-right racism
Anders Breivik is a far-right terrorist, not a madman. It is a difficult verdict for some to process: here is a man who methodically shot dead dozens of idealistic teenagers, either as they ran hyperventilating or stood paralysed with terror. He shot kids who played dead, or who tried desperately to swim for safety. When he recalled the eighty minutes of slaughter in what must be one of the most chilling testimonies in post-war European legal history, his tone was cold and clinical. Breivik smirked his way through the trial, weeping only at his pathetic propaganda film. He smirked again when the court declared him to be sane, overturning some earlier psychiatric reports. It was exactly what he wanted: for this self-proclaimed “political activist”, being sent to a mental hospital would have been, in his own words, the “ultimate humiliation”.
But many of the victims’ families breathed a sigh of relief, too, when insanity was ruled out. It would have absolved him of personal responsibility for the slaughter, and they regarded Breivik’s atrocity – rightly – as a political crime. When terrorists detonate their bodies supposedly in the name of Allah, questions of sanity rarely enter into public discussion. Apparently Islamist terrorists are possessed with hateful ideology, but a white far-right murderer must be clinically insane. Even despite atrocities involving millions of Europeans throughout the 20th century – all within living memory – many of us struggle to accept that entirely sane human beings are capable of unspeakable barbarity. Breivik must not be remembered as a serial killer, as Norway’s Harold Shipman or Ted Bundy. He is a political terrorist, and his butchery was motivated by a hatred of socialists and Muslims.
All the reports indicate that most of Norway is delighted with the verdict; survivors of the Utøya massacre tweeted their delight. Emma Martinovic, for example, summed up her emotions succinctly: “YEEEEEEESSSSSSSS!!!” But some Britons have expressed their revulsion that a man who murdered 77 people received a sentence of just 21 years, or three months and eight days per victim. In truth, he can never be released so long as he is judged to pose a threat to society.
But the sentence sums up the whole approach of Norway to a terrorist attack that may well have destabilized other nations. Others capitulate to terrorism by becoming more authoritarian, intolerant, repressive societies: their politicians pass laws clamping down on civil liberties. Would a British Prime Minister strike the same note of defiance of Jens Stoltenberg in the immediate aftermath of the horror?: “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.” Norway played the whole case by the book, imposing what is the maximum sentence under the country’s law. The message was clear: Breivik will not change us.
Other than for crimes committed in war, Norway has not executed anyone since 1876. In the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity, just 16% of Norwegians polled supported the death penalty. Breivik himself argued there were only two “just and fair” outcomes to his trial – acquittal or death. A 21 year sentence would be “a pathetic punishment,” he argued. But Norwegian justice robs this far right fanatic of what he wanted – martyrdom.
Breivik argued the attacks had been necessary to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway. But, in the initial months at least, they helped fuel a profound backlash against bigotry. The populist anti-immigrant Progress Party – which counted Breivik as one of its members until 2006 – received an electoral kicking in local elections last September, its support plummeting by six percentage points to 11.4%.
That is not to be complacent. The initial backlash has faded, and the former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland has argued: “I don’t think we have changed much in the past year.” Although politicians were “more cautious” when it came to discussion integration and Muslims, “if you look at what is going on at the grassroots level it has not changed.”
But it is not just Norway that must learn from last July’s events. Where once Europe was riddled with the poison of anti-Semitism, there is a virtual pandemic of Islamophobia on the Continent. Whether it be the English Defence League marching on our streets here, or the French National Front’s record score in April’s presidential elections, the hatred is deep, profound and alarming. What a great tribute to the memory of Breivik’s 77 victims it would be if the atrocity spurs on a renewed determination to the crush the far-right and drive back the tide of Islamophobic hysteria.
As Breivik left the courtroom with a fascist salute, he no doubt feels like a martyr to his racist cause. The hope must surely be that he languishes in obscurity, a terrorist whose aims have been defeated – spurring on not those who hate Muslims and socialists, but those determined to destroy the far-right as a political force.Tagged in: Anders Breivik, Anders Breivik verdict, crime, criminal responsibility, far right, insanity, islam, Islamophobia, Jens Stoltenberg, murder, norway, oslo, racism, terrorism
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