The monster in your mirror

As more details emerge about Anders Behring Breivik, charged with carrying out the appalling massacre of dozens of participants at a Norwegian Socialist Party summer camp, it has been fascinating to see how the media has chosen to report the events.

First, the immediate assumption that this was an act of Islamist terror – and the fact that the media continued to press this line once it became clear that this was not the case – the Sun’s “Norway’s 9/11” headline, but also the BBC – who ought to aspire to higher standards than that.  And then, once the fact that Breivik was no Islamist became clear, the lapsing into the easy journalistic clichés about loners.

But the comforting fantasy of the “loner” is ideological, as always designed to try and demonstrate that the individual is acting outside society, not part of it.  It’s one of a range of words that aims to show to the reader that Breivik (or indeed any other perpetrator of a shocking crime) is not one of us; monster, pervert, sicko – the repertory is large and predictable.  It’s a view that might especially appeal to those who believe that there is no such thing as society, to ensure that the person with whom we are dealing is definitively “the other”.  And there’s a more subtle distinction too – the reluctance in the British media reporting the Utoeya massacre to use the word “terrorism”, to try and isolate the incident and remove it from any social or political context.

But that won’t do.  Breivik clearly had links with far right organisations across Europe, including the English Defence League in Britain; and his actions are a reminder that the far right is resurgent across Europe and in Scandinavia in particular, with Islam as a principal target.  By attacking the Socialist Party, Breivik appears to have carried out a clearly targeted attack against the social democratic ideal that everyone associates with Scandinavia, even at a time when Sweden and Denmark have right-of-centre governments; this was an attack on the Scandinavian Model itself.  And it draws on a far-right tradition that has traditionally been strong in Scandinavia – through, for example, the practice of eugenics in the early years of the Twentieth Century – and has recently re-emerged in response to what is perceived as a growing Muslim population.

That this is a political act – an act of political terror – is implicit in the reaction of the Norwegian political establishment.  It’s a very mature and democratic reaction; Norwegian politicians argue that their country needs to ask questions about its values and democracy – in powerful contrast to the post-9/11 “Bomb them to Hell” reaction of George W Bush – the reaction of a weak man holding the highest office in a failing democracy.

This morning, the Independent published some of the collected thoughts of Breivik.  They are banal and surprisingly familiar; they’re not that different from what you might read in the comments columns of the online Daily Mail, or on the BBC’s “Have your say” sections on its website.  There is apparently a manifesto, which talks about how multiculturalism is attacking Christian society.  Breivik apparently holds beliefs that are shared by many people who comment on line – people who might use words like “common sense” to rationalise their fear of the other, or who would refer to the idea that one might acknowledge another person’s cultural viewpoint as “political correctness gone mad”.  There is a banality that forces us to look in the mirror, knowing that in our society those opinions are widely-held and not remotely unusual or abnormal.

The argument that Breivik was to some extent a product of his society does not absolve him of responsibility for his actions.  There are people who share his warped views of society everywhere – almost none of them go on killing sprees. But until we accept that society has a responsibility too I believe we cannot begin to understand and deal with the problems he represents.  And that means that there is a point up to which we all have to take collective responsibility for the values of the society we live in.


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