Notes From the Margins…

Discussing Breivik

  • April 17, 2012
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Yesterday I appeared as a guest on the BBC World Service programme World Have Your Say to debate the Breivik trial, which is still available here.   The programme was an interesting format; it’s basically an open discussion with only light chairing from the presenter, involving participants from various countries who speak to each other as though they were in the same studio.

It was also an hour long – a long time for the radio – so that the discussion covered a lot of ground.   Participants included a Norwegian journalist; a young student who lost a friend at Utoeya island; a criminologist from Manchester University; a student from Tunisia; a Swedish journalist and expert on the European far-right; Park Dietz, the forensic pathologist who worked on the Unabomber case, and – somewhat unexpectedly – the EDL leader ‘Tommy Robinson’, standing out like a tarantula on a wedding cake.

Robinson came across as a total bigot (surprise, surprise) and it was actually quite sickening to hear his condemnation of Breivik as a ‘monster’,  given the connections that Breivik had with the EDL and his open admiration for its activities.  Not to mention the overlap in ideas.

Hardly had Robinson finished his perfunctory condemnation of the Norway murders, than he launched into a diatribe about Islam, which drew on virtually every cliché from the counterjihad textbook: Islam is not a religion of peace, no Muslim country has ever been at peace, Muslims have killed 70 million people, Mohammed was a paedophile etc, etc

It was pure hatespeak, despite Robinson’s insistence that he was against Islam, not Muslims.  There was not a word in what he said that Breivik could have disagreed with, whether it was his characterization of Islam or his bitter invectives against ‘multicultural lovenests.’

Robinson is cunning though, insisting that his organization was not far right and presenting himself as a humble man of the people, speaking truths that are denied by the politically correct elite.

Apart from his dismal contributions, which were thankfully brief, the discussion covered a lot of ground.  The decision of the Norwegian authorities to televise the trial was a  recurring theme, as participants considered whether such publicity would give Breivik a platform or whether television would allow the Norwegian public and the world in general to gain a better understanding of his crimes.

Breivik clearly longed for the opportunity to propagandize about his ’cause’ and perhaps to become a celebrity in the process, and he relished his day in court yesterday.   Some participants argued that he should not be given the chance to express his views, given the risk that others may be ‘inspired’ by them.

I’m not convinced by this argument.    In my  view, it is essential to look at the wider background behind the events of last July, and the trial provides an opportunity to do this. Breivik may have acted alone, but his views about multiculturalism and Islam reflect a wide consensus that spans the political mainstream to the far-right fringes- and his belief in an impending European ‘civil war’ is not unique to him.

The scale and barbarism of his crimes makes it difficult to find any form of commensurate justice from the point of view of his victims,  whose relatives and friends will be forced to witness the hollow posturings and self-glorification of this pathetic narcissist day after day.

But his crimes were nevertheless political crimes, and it’s important to see them as such, and to give them a public airing.   The prosecution is seeking to prove that Breivik was insane, and I wrote a piece for  Ceasefire  magazine yesterday on why I hope that does not happen, which you can find  here.

In this dangerous period, when the established far-right and counterjihadists are gaining ground across the continent,  when the conspiracy theory/Islamophobic fantasy of a plot to transform Europe into ‘Eurabia’ enjoys widespread credibility,  and even mainstream politicians deliver coded condemnations of ‘multiculturalism’ as alien and un-European,  the Breivik trial provides an opportunity to consider where such tendencies can lead.

I’m not sure that a televised trial was necessary to bring about this outcome however, because television has a special ability to convert almost anything into a voyeuristic spectacle, and there is a danger that wall-to-wall coverage of the trial might lead to a Stockholm syndrome relationship between viewers and Breivik.

But I hope that the next ten weeks will galvanize men and women of goodwill to come together and reject not just Breivik, but the politics that produced him, and work to build a Europe in which the twisted hatred that he expressed so horrifically last summer will become nothing but a freakish aberration.







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  1. Ken

    20th Apr 2012 - 9:21 am

    Hi Matt
    In a press conference 24 hours after the atrocities on the BBC, the Norwegian (social democratic) prime minister Jens Stoltenberg calmly said : “our answer to violence is more openness, more democracy … but we will not be naïve.” Bit different to UK, post-7/7? I’ve been to lovely, mountainous Norway three or four times in the 2000’s, albeit as a tourist, but rather than take it in a pan -European context, I’d ask the opposite question – ‘Why specifically Norway’ ?

    When, in the 90s, Norway had its own ‘James Bulger’ case, the BBC reported:-
    “…the way in which Norway dealt with the murder of Silje (also two male killers, though each aged 6) was in stark contrast to that of James Bulger’s. It’s an astonishing story that forces us to challenge some of our basic principles of how we deal with young offenders.

    In Norway, no children under 15 are prosecuted and Silje’s killers were back at kindergarten within a week. The local community were encouraged to air their views and brought together to grieve openly. A team of counsellors was set up to work with the children in school. The strategy worked and, amazingly, there were no reprisals against either of the boys or their families. They were able to carry on living on the local housing estate.

    The police, the local community and even Silje’s mother were united in believing that they shouldn’t be punished. “Yes, I feel sympathy for them,” she says. “They need compassion. They must be treated as children and be shown kindness and concern rather than vengeance.”

    The centre-left consenus in Norway (the Labour Party has held power most in Norway’s Parliament since 1927), albeit with periods of coalition and even – shock/horror – centre right coalitions, has created an outwardly egalitarian, consenus society that petro-dollars has made one of the most prosperous in the world.

    However, this outwardly open, admirably tolerant and ideal society also spawns domestic violence on an egregious scale (in 2011, it is estimate that 1:4 of partners in Norwegian couples – same gender or not – experience some level of abuse – a 500% increase between 2005-11!!) And produces a Breivik.

    I think any quest for rationalising this event or finding answers has to be found first in the context of Breivik’s own psychology worked on (or not) by a ‘privileged’ upbringing (distant, ‘old-school’ father and passive, indifferent mother, where ‘laissez-faire’ masqueraded as a right-on liberalism, from the reports available) set in the wider context of a society that is so striving to be civically-tolerant, and outwardly so in thrall to bland, corporate comformity as to be almost a pastiche of itself, a subject for the wildest satire. Breivik’s own diaries’ in his ‘Manifest’, ridiculous as they are, refer to acquaintances he met at affluent parties in terms of how ‘you can’t really talk to them, they’re so PC’, or ‘if only they knew what I really thought, they’d hate me.’

    There is a dark underbelly to liberal values – by huggging us all in its caring, Alpaca-ed arms it can squeeze out variety, outspokeness and individualism in favour of a collective facade of ‘One-Voice’. Breivik is the extreme end of the spectrum, but his frustrations reflect a society so guarded against ‘HateSpeak’, it preaches ‘Unspeak’.

    This is why we must hear all views. When Nick Griffin got space on BBC’s Question Time a couple of years ago for his BNP platform, he made himself a mockery, fragmented his own fascist party, and set the British far-right back by 5 years at least.

    Like the blog, enjoyed my rant – keep on thinking free (as the Moody Blues may never have said in the 70s!)

    • Matt

      20th Apr 2012 - 10:43 am

      Interesting observations about Norway Ken, which isn’t a country that I know well. But doesn’t the Progress Party, for example, suggest that Norway is not dominated by a liberal PC ‘One Voice’ and that these ‘views’ that you speak of do have an outlet? In fact, one of the most alarming aspects of Breivik’s ideas, is how familiar, routine and readily accessible they are.

      There is a thin line between ‘hatespeak’ and ‘variety, outspokeness and individualism’, but I’m not convinced by your suggestion that Breivikism is some kind of demented reaction to political correctness and a touchie-feelie liberalism.

      If there were no restrictions on , or social condemnation of, certain expressions of bigotry and racism, do you really think that this absence would mean fewer bigots or racists? I don’t see that.

      Also, as you will probably have gathered, I’m not at all convinced that the events of last July can be ‘rationalised’ in terms of Breivik’s psychological makeup (though that can hardly be ignored). To do so would be dangerously convenient, in my opinion, and might end up ignoring the fact that, apart from the violence, what he said and thought is fairly common currency.

  2. Ken Evans

    24th Apr 2012 - 10:32 am

    All too true, Matt, I guess we’re in danger of agreement. I think I was trying some counter-weight with the personal and family psychology and the wider social context, to the exclusively political reading of it. Certainly, hearing him talk is surely proof he is, over time, likely to get the sarin-gas of deathly obscurity rather than the ‘oxygen of publicity’ he craves. We hope.

    It doesn’t in any way ‘justify’ a Breivik, but history may contribute towards understanding (as much as one can, a hate-infused hysteric) a little too.

    Norway has only been a sovereign nation for a little over 100 years. One of the things the visitor notices first in Norway is the number of houses with flagpoles (a small, almost ‘folksy’, but highly visible sign of national pride not only being not unacceptable, let alone ‘uncool’, as it largely is in Britain, thank god – perhaps this year excepted.)

    Four of those ‘free’ 100 years were in fact in thrall to the Nazis. Hollywood history emphasises the plucky Resistance Fighter side to little Norway (see ‘Heroes of Telemark, and the 2008 movie, ‘Man of War’.)

    But Quisling was a Norwegian, of course. Norway allowed precious iron ore from Sweden, bound for munitions in Nazi Germany, to pass through their railway system and ports in North Norway at Narvik – one reason Churchill approved the mining of a ‘neutral’ countries’ waters and the subsequent famous ‘futile gesture’ raids by British commandos.

    60,000 Norwegians (out of a population of just 2-3 million) actively fought for Hitler, some in the SS (and like other nationalities who aped Hitlers’ perversions) were even more zealous than their German counterparts in their anti-Semitism.

    Just as many German scientists who worked for Hitler were quickly absorbed into American space research, so only a handful of senior collaborators were ever held to account for their Nazi pasts. Many went back into influential civil and political roles within a few years, in the prevailing, post-1945 spirit of ‘forgiveness’.

    Since then a highly homogenous society with a small, dispersed – and until the 70s a massively agrarian – population that valued ‘rustic’ qualities of ‘self-reliance’, keeping oneself to oneself, public propriety and civic obedience, but which sees the State as largely a ‘helper’ and beneficial rather than a bureacratised behemoth serving only a ruling elite, has encouraged immigration. No doubt to deliver a workforce that will do the jobs an increasingly gas- and oil-fuelled affluent indigenous population wouldn’t touch. Now the capital Oslo is one-quarter immigrant, and as divided as any South African city under apartheid – affluent whites to the West of the centre, new immigrants to the East.

    I know Breivik is a symptom of a wider ‘disease’ – look only at the Far Right’s showing in France’s elections this week. But I also think many of the symptoms have more localised roots too.

    I suppose I go less on a macro conspirary-theory of divisions of ‘Knights Templar’ made of assorted EDL, Serb nationalists and undefined others, just waiting to rise up, to renew and exploit ancient animosities between ‘Moors’ and ‘Christians’ (sour and pernicious as this is and may yet prove to be) and more in a particularised, even more toxic mix of personal weaknesses, a society in flux, a history of others’ experienced as ‘Otherness’, and the hideous power of the Internet to make us feel like bigger players than we are, while giving us the tools to enact out that rehearsed sense of cyber-destiny in reality, on a platform of our own righteousness.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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