Breivik's Monstrous Dream—and Why It Failed
Anders Behring Breivik clenches his fist in a far-right salute as he arrives in court for the second day of his terrorism and murder trial in Oslo April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
Bodø is the last stop on the Norwegian State Railway. This city of 47,000 people lies above the Arctic Circle and is sandwiched between dramatic snow-covered mountains and the cold Norwegian Sea. The winding highways have signs reminding drivers to watch out for moose. This is the kind of slow-paced city where not a lot happens—the last place on earth you would expect the global “counter-jihad” movement to hit home.
But Bodø’s quiet, along with the rest of Norway’s, was destroyed last year on July 22 when Anders Behring Breivik, a self-described “commander in Norway’s resistance movement,” exploded a 2,100-pound homemade car bomb in central Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others in a first salvo against his perceived “Islamic colonization of Europe.” Disappointed that the explosion hadn’t caused the government headquarters to collapse (as his trial testimony has made clear), the then 32-year-old Oslo native decided to implement his Plan B, driving twenty-five miles northwest to the island of Utøya, where the youth division of Norway’s ruling Labor Party was holding its annual camp. Heavily armed and wearing a police uniform he had purchased over the Internet, Breivik systematically hunted down, shot and killed sixty-nine people, most of them teenagers, over the course of a harrowing seventy-nine minutes, before surrendering to police. “You shall die today, Marxists!” he cried while executing some of his victims. He killed people from fifty-five municipalities across Norway, including 17-year-old Espen Jørgensen, the newly elected leader of Bodø’s Labor Party youth division, shot three times in the back while protecting another teenager.
Breivik’s trial began on April 16 and is expected to last ten weeks. Days before the trial began, I interviewed Espen’s father, Geir-Arne Jørgensen, in Bodø, and he told me he was dreading the proceedings. “A lot of his political crap will come out, and that will be one of the hardest parts of the trial,” he said. “I have one child left, so I have to keep on going. It’s been hard. There have been many dark days.” Community support has helped enormously. A memorial service in Bodø was attended by more than 15,000 people, a third of the city. Jørgensen, like many Norwegians, struggles to understand what happened and to comprehend Breivik’s war on multiculturalism. “I can’t find any logic in it at all,” he said. He showed me the inside of his left forearm, which was entirely covered by a tattoo of his son’s face, which he had had done in September. Asked what he thinks would be an appropriate punishment for Breivik, he said, “I hope that he gets locked up forever, or at least until he fully understands what he has done. Then he would probably hang himself, because no human being can bear knowing you have done what he has done.”
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Breivik carried out his monstrous actions to glorify himself and to promote his view that Europe is locked in a death match with Islam. He hoped, through an orchestrated use of violence and the calculated use of new media, to launch a bloody civil war in Europe that would last for decades. But the indications coming from Norway are that, at least for now, he has failed completely. Surveys indicate that after July 22, Norwegians reported greater support for immigration than before the attacks (from 72 percent to 82 percent), and many of the loudest right-wing voices in Norway have had to retool their message in the wake of the massacre.
But Breivik’s attack illustrates more than its own failures. It also points to the changing nature of right-wing discourse over the past decade and how this new right-wing ideology, based largely on alarmist half-truths and often outright lies, has a foothold in Norway. Before 9/11, mainstream right-wing thought in Europe was fueled by a general anti-immigrant sentiment, while the discourses of the extreme right were, like their American counterparts, marked by conspiracy theories of Jewish control of government. Since 9/11 the narratives have shifted and narrowed. Now, Europe’s right-wing extremists and populist parties believe that Muslim immigrants are out to occupy the continent and destroy Western civilization from within, aided by naïve elites enthralled by multiculturalism. This anti-Muslim ideology is zealously pushed in bestselling books such as Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia, Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept and Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan. It’s screamed out on popular blogs like Gates of Vienna, Document.o and Atlas Shrugs, and it’s put on the streets by Britain’s English Defense League, Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the Danish People’s Party. In Norway right-wing bloggers bray warnings that Muslim supremacy lurks just around the corner, even though immigrant Muslim birthrates decline over time and Norway’s Muslim community numbers only 100,000 to 150,000 people—a mere 3 percent of its population.
This is “a new version of European anti-Semitic ideas,” explained Tore Bjørgo, a professor at the Norwegian Police University College and a specialist on right-wing extremism. “The structure is much the same: an external enemy who wants to invade us and take over our country, our culture; and to achieve that they use internal traitors who collaborate with them.” The right today believes it is “the true resistance movement,” he told me, explaining that this narrative works particularly well in countries, like Norway, that had resistance movements during World War II. Raymond Johansen, secretary general of the Labor Party, also sees the shift in the populist position. “If you look into the right-wing populists’ rhetoric, it has changed from general anti-immigration issues to anti-Islam,” he told me. “Then you have the cultural thing about women veiling, how they are dressed, how you have to watch the religion. It started in Holland and continued in the previously very liberal countries, like Denmark. The right-wing populists’ number throughout Europe is growing, and there is reason to be worried.”
Certainly, right-wing extremism and right-wing populism are not the same, but “they are at least cousins,” according to Johansen. “Right-wing populists rhetorically are using the same vocabulary as the right-wing extremists,” he said. “They are not willing to use the same means as the right-wing extremists. But a single act of hatred starts with words of hatred.”
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Many such words are collected in Breivik’s 1,518-page document, titled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence (“2083” because that is the year Europe’s civil war will finally end, with the Muslims deported and cultural Marxists and multiculturalists executed). More than half the work comprises essays copied from the Internet, and the rest is Breivik’s own. It is a bizarre read. The sections Breivik composed contain, among other things, uniforms and insignia for the Knights Templar, his imagined resistance army; head shots of Breivik, presumably for media use; details on explosives and weapons; opening and closing statements for his trial, which he had foreseen; a section where he interviews himself (“Q: Name your favorite Eau de Toilette: A: Chanel Platinum Egoiste”); an incomplete elaboration of women’s “erotic capital”; and a clinical discussion of the STDs his mother and half-sister have contracted.
The document has repeatedly been called a manifesto and denigrated as a cut-and-paste job, although Breivik does usually identify his sources. Less remarked upon is that Breivik never calls his text a manifesto, instead using the term ”compendium,” and that he clearly envisions the document as a present and future collaborative effort. Sections are left in draft form, to be completed by others later. He also appears to have carried out his “operation” essentially as a form of marketing for the work. He sent the document to 1,003 people ninety minutes before the attack and concludes his text by telling the reader that “the responsibility falls upon you now as I will, for obvious reasons, not be able to develop it any further. Any and all individuals with the appropriate skills are encouraged to contribute to a second edition of this compendium by improving and expanding it where needed.” He closes by thanking his “brothers and sisters in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the US etc.” for their assistance.
The list is significant. Breivik may be a loner, but he’s not alone. Transcribing the anti-Muslim blogosphere into his text is his way of showing he is part of a movement. He is tapping into the talents of today’s right-wing populists who “are adept at using new technology to amplify their message, recruit, and organize,” as a recent study by European think tank Demos pointed out. 2083 gets its compositional energy from the phenomenon of crowd-sourcing. This is not a brainless cut-and-paste job. It’s a wiki for right-wing terrorism.
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Breivik cites Al Qaeda as a source for terrorist methods, but his ideological inspiration is the loony Euro-American anti-Islamic blogosphere. Many of those he cites now distance themselves from him, helped by a report in November from court-appointed psychiatrists that found Breivik to be insane. (A second report, however, has concluded he was sane at the time of the attacks; the court must now make a determination.) But it’s an odd strategy, since the bloggers are really saying that anyone who’s willing to act on the warmongering ideas they promote—that is, anyone who listens to them seriously—must be crazy.
Norwegian blogger “Fjørdman,” since discovered to be Peder Jensen, is Breivik’s primary intellectual progenitor. He is cited 111 times in the text and had also exchanged e-mails with Breivik. Jensen’s war rhetoric is unmistakable. He says Europe is currently in a “multicultural world war” and that “all of Europe will not be lost, but some parts may be, and many others will be damaged by the fighting. Many of our cultural treasures will burn.” Yet, he now separates himself entirely from Breivik, calling him “a Nordic Mohammed” and labeling him a paranoid schizophrenic.
A different response, however, has come from conservative Norwegian blogger Ole Jørgen Anfindsen, whose blog HonestThinking.org is also referred to in Breivik’s compendium. Anfindsen, an evangelical Christian, has had somewhat of a change of heart in the wake of July 22. “It is difficult to accept that I may have been at least partly an inspiration,” he told me, speaking of the attacks, “and that saddens me.” He has been confronting his demons since. “Breivik is using some of the same arguments that we are using,” he said, “and we have to be willing to go through a process of purification.” Unlike Jensen, Anfindsen found the initial psychiatric finding that Breivik was insane to be insulting to the conservative movement. “It’s perfectly possible to hold several of the views that Breivik holds in his manifesto without being crazy,” he declared.
Professor Bjørgo agreed. The psychiatrists who wrote the first report “had no understanding of what are normal worldviews among right-wing extremists. Many of the things Breivik said—like I’m in the middle of a civil war and they are traitors and all these conspiracies—the psychiatrists considered to be expressions of paranoid delusions. I, who have studied right-wing extremism for fifteen years, see this as a normal worldview in his circles.”
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Almost all extremist violence in Norway’s modern history has come from the far right. The 1970s witnessed bombings of left-wing bookstores, and the ’80s saw internecine violence in the neo-Nazi movement. In January 2001, Boot Boys in search of “getting a foreigner” stabbed 15-year-old Benjamin Hermansen, the son of a Norwegian mother and Ghanaian father, and a Somali-Norwegian taxi driver and father of six was killed in Trondheim in 2008 by a man who wrote that he wanted “to kill Muslims if the opportunity presented itself.” In neighboring Sweden, Peter Mangs was arrested in November 2010 for a yearlong sniper campaign against immigrants in Malmö, a neighborhood with a high concentration of Muslims. Breivik has praised Mangs as a European “patriot.”
But the July 22 attacks signify a change in the strategies of far-right violence: Breivik directly targeted Norway’s ruling party, not its Muslim minority. “Random violence against Muslims is considered counter-productive and will only create more sympathy for Islam at best,” writes Breivik in his compendium. To kill the young politicians was to implement a policy of political assassination with the aim of changing the future of the Labor Party in Norway.
It hasn’t worked. Eskil Pedersen, the 28-year-old leader of the youth wing (AUF) of the Labor Party, was on Utøya on July 22. Breivik had considered assassinating him specifically. “It was a very traumatic experience that day. It took quite a long time before I felt safe,” Pedersen told me. But Breivik didn’t succeed at killing off the AUF. Its membership has since grown 45 percent, and the political nature of the attack has caused the AUF to reassess its priorities. “We have always been involved in the work against racism in Norway, but that issue is now even more important,” Pedersen said.
In fact, a state commission determined that immediately following the attack and before Breivik was known as the assailant, at least fifteen hate crimes or acts of harassment against Muslims occurred throughout Norway. Lingering in the background for many Norwegians is what the response would have been had the attacks been carried out by a Muslim; many admitted to me their fear of a less tolerant society. Fabian Stang, Oslo’s popular Conservative mayor, addressed this question head-on and with considerable introspection when visiting a mosque in Oslo shortly after the attack. He told his Muslim audience, “The murderer was white, Christian for all I know, a little younger than me and very similar in appearance. None of you have branded me as a possible murderer. If a Muslim ever does something that can’t be accepted, I promise I’ll never brand you.”
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Norway’s right-wingers base their worldview essentially on three dangerous fictions that have now proven deadly. The first is that Muslims are about to take over and impose Sharia law in Norway, a near-impossibility considering Norway’s tiny Muslim community. The second is the repeated right-wing complaint that discussions of Islam and immigration are silenced by political elites. This too is belied by the facts. Norway’s anti-immigrant Progress Party is the second-largest party in Parliament. Discussions of Islam, far from being suppressed, are overrepresented in the media, contributing more to a culture of polarization than political correctness. A 2010 study by Norway’s Directorate of Integration and Diversity found that in 2009 Norwegian media coverage of Islam almost outpaced references to the country’s prime minister. Immigration and integration also generated a whopping 324,319 comments on the debate pages of Aftenposten, a major daily (far above the 19,049 comments on schools and education). And most media coverage of immigration and Muslims was negative and skewed. Somalis, for example, generated three times the media coverage of Polish immigrants, even though there are almost twice as many Poles in Norway.
The third fiction is that Muslims will never assimilate into Norwegian society. Despite the rage and spleen spilled over Muslims in Norway, integration efforts have been quite successful. Norway’s second-generation Muslims excel, particularly in education. Although the government statistics bureau still considers “Norwegian-born persons with immigrant parents” immigrants, the data reveal that second-generation Norwegians participate in higher education more than their ethnic Norwegian counterparts, and the largest group of second-generation Norwegians by far have Pakistani parents. Employment levels are only slightly lower than in the rest of the population.
Bushra Ishaq, a prominent spokeswoman for the Norwegian Muslim community, is an example of the success and complexity of being a Norwegian Muslim. A 28-year-old physician, she had just left her shift in the emergency room in a downtown Oslo hospital when Breivik’s bomb exploded. She immediately turned around and went back to work. The emergency room treated 150 people in two hours, she told me, and patients with glass shards under their skin continued to pour in the next day. There wasn’t time to think of anything but treating the wounded, yet afterward strange feelings of guilt begin to float her way, feelings that “because of you, because of being a Muslim in Norway, people are killed,” she said.
Her work with anti-racist youth groups keeps her optimistic, nonetheless. Ishaq believes that everyday racism against Norwegian Muslims has declined since the attacks and that a larger sense of national community has opened up. “After the trial, people will understand what kind of ideology has been growing in our country,” she said. “And that we have to take more responsibility toward it.”
This, finally, is a truth worth pondering.