Notes From the Margins…

Simon Jenkins, Anders Breivik and the ‘Madman Scenario’

  • July 27, 2011
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There is a rather weak piece by Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian on why “the last thing Norway needs is illiberal Britain’s patronising.”   Jenkins has been good on terrorism in the past,  and he is one of the few critical voices in the mainstream media on the political manipulation of 9/11 and terrorism in general, but he’s barking up the wrong tree here.

His central point is that Anders Breivik is a madman, and that therefore

The Norwegian tragedy  is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so. A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics.

Jenkins criticizes David Cameron’s proposal to order “a review of the far right” on the grounds that

The hysteria of the moment may require a knee jerk from those in power, but why the national security council was summoned, or “a review of our security at home” needed, is a mystery. To the victims, the killings were an act of random madness, a terrible accident, a car crash, a catastrophe out of the blue.

He then argues that

Terrorism is a specific and rational political form: the use of an violence to achieve a multiplier of fear through a civilian population to a particular end. Visiting ‘shock and awe’ by bombing Baghdad in 2003 was an act of  terrorism, as were the bombs on the London Underground. Killing Norwegian teenagers (not Muslims) to express some vague hatred for society is not. It is merely deranged.

This analysis is too complacent by half.   Of course Jenkins is right to warn against a kneejerk security overreaction – we’ve already seen quite enough of that over the last decade.   But after years in which terrorism has been depicted as an exclusively Muslim activity, it’s about time that governments realised that such acts are not limited to the various offshoots of the global jihad.

Jenkins’ attempt to detach Breivik’s actions from the realm of politics is also facile and simplistic.   Breivik may well be mad, but the fact that he “can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood” does not in itself make him insane.

If respect for human life were a marker of insanity,  then Al Qaeda, the 7/7 bombers and the Ba’athist and jihadist anti-occupation groups would also have to categorised as pathological deviants rather than political protagonists.  Few people would consider this to be an adequate explanation for their actions.  Nor can Bleivik’s atrocities be pigeon-holed so easily under the label ‘mental illness.’

Jenkins is certainly correct in  describing ‘shock and awe’ as an act of (state) terrorism and a “multiplier of fear”.   But fear is only one component of Breivik’s ‘day of rage’, which otherwise is entirely in keeping with the  logic of revolutionary terrorism that first emerged in the late nineteenth century, when anarchists and anti-Tsarist revolutionaries began assassinating prominent officials and heads of state according to the strategy of ‘propaganda by deed.’

This ‘technique’ of violence as it was sometimes called,  was intended to enable small and sometimes marginalised groups to ‘punch above their weight’ and compensate for their lack of military power by generating dramatic and shocking political spectacles. In doing so the groups and individuals that carried them out hoped to galvanise a wider constituency to follow their example,  and generate a wider confrontation that would spread across the whole of society.

Breivik’s own statements make it quite clear that he had the same intentions.  His actions belong to the same tradition of ‘leaderless resistance’ developed by the American far right in the 1990s, to which Timothy McVeigh also belonged.  Of course we may wonder at the personal motivations that lead this murderous and self-regarding ‘warrior’ to  believe that killing teenagers was a legitimate act of ‘war’, but such actions, however despicable,  can rarely be understood solely in terms of individual psychology.

Not only did the Norway killings have political objectives, but they were also the product of a  political context.  Yet still Jenkins insists otherwise:

Nor can I see any purpose in detailed textual analysis of Breivik’s so-called manifesto, least of all as a means to make easy partisan points, leftwing or rightwing, out of its garbled horror.

Garbled it may be, but the ideas and assumptions it contains about immigration, Islam and Western cultural collapse are everyday currency across a very wide spectrum of opinion.  As a witty post on “the rise of the nutters” on the Schnews website observes of Breivik’s manifesto “apart from a load of weird stuff about body-armour, the Knights Templar and the appropriate use of steroids, at the heart is a vision eerily familiar to readers of such fringe esoteric publications as say the Daily Express, Daily Mail or Sun.”

Schnews goes on to point out that

The Daily Mail has now denounced Breivik as neo-Nazi, despite his explicit rejection of Nazism – in fact politically he wasn’t much more right-wing than them. There is now a concerted attempt to divorce Breivik’s ideas from his actions – to suggest that he was just ‘insane’ or ‘sick’, even calls to not allow his monstrous actions to ‘shut down the debate on immigration’. When jihadists commit an outrage there isn’t usually such a rush to let their ideology off the hook.

Indeed there isn’t.  And Schnews is really talking a lot more sense on this issue than the Guardian‘s illustrious columnist.

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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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