This post is somewhat off topic. And this post, despite being about Anders Breivik, is also not about Breivik. It is about political violence, a phenomenon vastly misunderstood despite its ubiquitousness.
If you don’t know who Breivik is, a short summary: back in 2011 he set off a car bomb and then killed a few dozen children with a rifle. Breivik had planned his attack for years. He also wrote a lengthy manifesto explaining his motivations. (Incidentally, I did read his manifesto at the time, because I don’t trust the media to portray this kind of thing accurately. And the media, by and large, did not.)
Breivik was an individual who was highly motivated and highly organized in both planning and carrying out his assault. He was someone who did not suffer from mental illness, and absolutely understood the full implications of what he was doing. Thus, it is surprising to see someone comment on the attack thus:
Columbine; Port Arthur, Australia; The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Newtown — the list goes on and on. And, by now, the elements of this type of massacre have become ritualized: usually one, but sometimes more than one, deeply disaffected person, almost always male, who is heavily armed with guns and/or explosives, targets the innocent. In the aftermath, which sometimes includes a trial, the crucial question of “Why?” is never really answered. Instead, most of us are left to wonder how any human being, however twisted, could be capable of such horror.
What Breivik did on Utoya was not like Columbine, Port Arthur, or other school attacks. The only way it resembles this is the fact that it was a mass shooting.
I would like to reiterate and clarify the mental illness element: the children who carry out school shootings are, almost always, sufferers of moderate to severe mental illness. That said, those with mental illnesses are not violent as a population. The reason mental illness is mentioned at all is because it is used as an excuse, a scapegoat, for violence. It may contribute in some cases, but that is all. And it is important to distinguish between violent acts by people who have delusions to the extent they are not capable of knowing what is going on (this is, roughly in legalese, “insanity”), those for whom mental illness ties in to violence, and those who commit violence without being mentally ill at all. Breivik falls into that last category.
The same children are motivated for very personal reasons. They know their victims; they seek personal revenge. In many cases, the children who carry out such attacks were victims themselves of bullying and ostracism. They perform poorly in school and, as such, are often denigrated or ignored by adults in positions of authority.
Breivik did not suffer from mental illness. He was not an under-achiever; he was not a child. This was an adult, capable of functioning highly and doing so in practice. He created a business front, as well as successfully generated the revenue, to stock and store materials, such as fertilizer, for a meticulously-planned attack. Breivik’s targets were political: the children on Utoya represented, to Breivik, the next generation of the left.
To compare Breivik to Columbine is like comparing Osama Bin Laden to Columbine.
Breivik’s attack had a Machiavellian right-wing calculus. He was literally killing the future generations of the demographic (the political left) he believed to be betraying a racially pure Norway. Killing the children of your enemy is the kind of thing we would expect and, indeed, do read about in histories. The motivation is clear as day. It isn’t because those kids tormented him in the lunch line.
(Because I do write about the police at length, I’ll digress and add this fact: Breivik loved the police. Breivik believed that law enforcement were the front line and greatest potential “allies” against a multiracial, multicultural Europe. When Breivik was approached by law enforcement, he put down his weapon and surrendered immediately.)
When a person leaves a lengthy manifesto, written and revised over the course of multiple years, there is no question of why. The why has already been explained, at length, by the person carrying out the violent act. If we look for answers outside of that – a hidden why behind the why presented by the person themselves – we’re wandering into the territory of inventing explanations.
It is as if there is a deliberate unwillingness to accept the motivation at face value. I suspect, and this is just my opinion, that this is rooted in an unwillingness to acknowledge the various, consistent rationales of political violence. It’s uncomfortable, because political violence is often justified, if we accept the premises of the person or group carrying out the act.
Breivik believed that the political left in Norway was betraying, collectively, white Europe. His was a far-right ideology. This was a main, foundational premise. He also believed that violence was not only an acceptable, but a necessary, way to combat this. If those two premises are true, then Breivik’s actions naturally follow.
There are some religious fundamentalists – you may have heard of these guys – who believe that using violence against supposed enemies of their religion is commandment given to them by God. Further, they believe that if they die carrying out such an attack they go immediately to heaven. If these two premises are true, then it naturally follows for any persons who hold those premises to carry out acts of violence within that paradigm.
These people are not mentally ill. They are not uneducated, they are not stupid. The only difference between these people and us, cognitively, is that they have starting premises which we do not share. And they believe in those starting premises in a very strong way. But if we did share those premises, it would be natural to act upon them. If you believed that hordes of brown people were coming to get you, as did Breivik, or that God would reward you for violence, as do religious extremists, it would follow for you to act accordingly. If you got violent it wouldn’t be a mystery.
People who throw their hands up and ask why, and equate political violence to the random acts of violence committed by the deeply troubled, are deluding themselves. I often wonder if these kinds of people have an inability to empathize; an inability to really put themselves in the shoes, the perspective, of another.
What is even more strange is that most people are able to rationalize the exact same kind of violence. It simply needs to be contextualized differently. If it was not a story about a far-right extremist killing seventy people with a rifle on Utoya, but a military hero killing seventy people with a rifle in the streets of Baghdad, it would not even be questioned. In fact, it would be glorified. If you don’t believe me, I have two words for you: American Sniper.
(Or ask a Christian about the book of Joshua in the Bible and see how quickly full blown genocide is rationalized.)
The fact is that most people already accept violence. We, most of us, have rationalizations. And it comes down to a very simple question: is it a good guy killing a bad guy? If the answer is yes, we tend to accept violence. There are some groups, and I admire them – Quakers and other Christians among them – who actually examine violence in depth and reject it. But most of us do neither. We accept violence, as long as the good guy is the one killing the bad guy. It isn’t mysterious.
The only question, then, is who the bad guy is. Let’s not digress to relativism. We can believe (or not) that there is an objective good guy and an objective bad guy. No need to go there, because it is not the issue. It doesn’t matter if everyone else in the world, except for Anders Breivik, realizes that the children on Utoya were not the bad guy. It is sufficient to know that Breivik thought those children, being the spawn of liberals, were the bad guys.
It’s sufficient, because that is all we need to know to understand what Breivik’s real motivation was.