Notes from the Margins | The Madness of Anders Breivik
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Monday, April 16, 2012 12:03 - 6 Comments
By Matt Carr
Anders Breivik makes a farright salute as he enters court on first day of his trial (16 April 2012)
Earlier today (Monday 16th April 2012) saw he start of the trial of Norwegian anti-Muslim extremist Anders Breivik, over the twin atrocities that he perpetrated on 22 July last year, when he detonated a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight people and went on to murder 69, mostly teenagers, at the Norwegian Labour Party’s summer camp on Utoeya island.
Breivik was charged with ‘ performing an act of terrorism in the form of murder, with the intention of destabilising the basic functions of society’ – a crime which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years. Despite – or perhaps because of – the magnitude of his crimes, the trial has already generated an extraordinary and in many ways unprecedented legal battle, in which the prosecution, rather than the defence, is calling for Breivik to be confined to a psychiatric institution rather than prison.
Breivik, meanwhile, has instructed his defence lawyer to argue that he was sane, even though this will almost certainly result in a maximum prison sentence if successful. As Breivik himself is clearly aware, the question of his sanity is not without political repercussions. Initial reports by two court-appointed psychiatrists last year concluded that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who inhabited his ‘own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions.’
These conclusions were contested by lawyers acting on behalf of some of Breivik’s victims. And in January, four prison psychiatrists contradicted this diagnosis and declared that Breivik was not psychotic and showed no sign of insanity. Today, a second psychiatric evaluation has found him “sane enough to face trial and a jail term”. Both reports will be considered by the court before it makes its decision.
It’s easy to see why Breivik himself is so determined to prove his sanity. His bizarre photographs dressed in a ‘military’ uniform that he designed himself or posing in a frogman suit bearing the label ‘Marxist hunter’ suggest a narcissist who has spent much of his time looking at himself in a real or imaginary mirror, rehearsing what he regarded as a grandiose act of cultural/nationalist resistance.
From Breivik’s point of view therefore, a verdict of insanity would diminish the heroic image that he wished to present to the world and trivialise what he called the ‘gruesome but necessary’ acts that he perpetrated on July 22 – acts that he clearly intended to be inspirational.
Some might argue that the mere fact that he takes pride in such horrendous acts is itself proof of his insanity, but he is not the first person to depict mass murder of civilians as a heroic and grandiose act. The perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States clearly regarded these atrocities in very similar terms, yet few people would seek an explanation for their action in insanity.
Political murder, even on the scale of ruthlessness and brutality that Breivik displayed, cannot in itself be considered an indicator of mental health. Breivik’s dire warnings of the imminent Islamic cultural and religious domination of Europe may well have been delusional and paranoid, but his extremism belongs to an extremist and alarmist discourse on Muslims, Islam and immigration that is shared by politicians, media pundits, far-right political parties and ‘defence leagues’ across the continent.
Established historians, journalists and scholars have all subscribed to the notion that Europe is being inexorably transformed into an Islamic colony called ‘Eurabia’ – a term that Breivik uses various times in his Internet manifesto.
The Internet is awash with videos like the one he produced to accompany and justify his crimes, in which images of cathedrals, Mozart and Beethoven and the other treasures of European civilisation are juxtaposed with photographs of Muslim terrorists and jihadists, or fringe radical Islamist groups as evidence of the barbarian enemy within.
Breivik was in contact with some of the websites and organisations that propagate such views. In his ‘manifesto’ he also cited more mainstream commentators and politicians, who routinely promote catastrophic scenarios of a Europe drifting into the arms of Islam, and denounce ‘multiculturalism’ and immigration as twin threats to national or European identity.
Anyone familiar with the writings of a Melanie Phillips or an Oriana Fallaci, for example, will find views on Muslim immigration that are virtually identical to Breivik’s – without the homicidal intent. Nor was Breivik’s image of himself as an implacable warrior/avenger/executioner entirely original.
To support their diagnosis of insanity, the two court psychiatrists cited some of the more outlandish mythologies that Breivik constructed around himself, such as his claims to be the ‘perfect knight’ and the ‘ Justiciar Knight Commander of the Knights Templar order’.
But the fantasies that this self-styled ‘perfect knight’ constructed around himself are hardly unique to him. Pre-Nazi racial occultists such as Guido von List and Jorg Lans von Liebenfels constructed even more elaborate and outlandish mythologies about the mystical origins of the ‘Aryan’ people to support their racist and anti-Semitic views.
Such mythologies have often accompanied extreme violence. Himmler’s fascination with pre-modern racial history and the medieval Teutonic Knights is well-known. The SS chief even created a special institute of scholars and archaeologists to prove some of his crackpot mystical and racial theories and built a castle where his SS ‘knights’ would gather like some chivalric order.
To some extent therefore, Breivik is a twenty-first century manifestation of a reactionary, anti-enlightenment and quasi-mystical romanticism that has always been intrinsic to the European far-right, and which continues to underpin the more exclusionary mythologies based on culture rather than race, which its contemporary descendants are invoking as a new basis for the exclusion and victimisation of the Other.
If Breivik’s views were irrational, his conception of violence belongs to a very rational tradition of ‘terrorist’ violence with its own recurring motifs. Like Mohammed Merah’s murder spree inToulouse, it belongs to the category of ‘leaderless resistance’, whereby individuals and small groups carry out acts of violence on their own account, within the broad rubric of a shared cause.
Breivik’s attacks on the ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘traitors’ who he claimed were paving the way for the downfall of Norway and Europe, were intended to inspire similar acts elsewhere in the continent, and they may yet succeed.
Across the continent, neo-Nazi and far-right groups have already carried out fire-bombings, physical attacks and killings of foreigners, Roma and Muslim immigrants, and some are dreaming of the same European civil war that Breivik believed he was participating in.
For all these reasons, a verdict of insanity would be a seriously misleading and reductionist explanation for the atrocious events of last July, which would obscure, rather than clarify its context and motivations.
If Norway– and Europe– are to have a chance of preventing similar crimes in the future and detoxifying the political climate that made it possible, then Breivik’s atrocities cannot be dismissed as a freakish aberration perpetrated by a madman.
And I may not be a psychiatrist, but on the question of Breivik’s sanity, I have to say that on this issue – and only this – I agree with his own assessment; I hope that the court judges him to be sane and puts him away for as long as the law allows.