The Magazine

The Breivik Veto

A case study in how to marginalize dissent.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By MICHAEL MOYNIHAN
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On the first day of his trial, Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who murdered 77 people last July in Norway, entered an Oslo courtroom and offered a raised fist to the gallery. The gesture was variously reported as a Knights Templar military salutation, a variant of the Nazi Sieg Heil, and a Mussolini-inspired “Roman salute.” The New York Times pondered its “varied meanings” to radicals both right and left.

Photo of Breivik

It was an appropriate moment of puzzlement; there still exists no consensus on what, if any, coherent ideology​—​beyond a hatred of Muslims​—​underpinned Breivik’s rampage. As in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by a deranged gunman, Breivik’s crimes precipitated a race to apportion ideological blame, with his views variously described as neoconservative, Christian fundamentalist, and Zionist.

Appearing on the left-wing radio show Democracy Now, Norwegian academic Johan Galtung, whose grand-daughter was nearly killed during the attack, hinted darkly that Breivik drew inspiration from the notorious Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which occurred on the same date in 1946. In a subsequent speech, Galtung suggested Mossad involvement in the Norwegian massacre, noting for good measure that Jews control the American media.

Like many autodidactic cranks, Breivik treated every stray political thought as a revelation, collecting them in a tedious and vulgar manifesto: 1,500 pages, clipped and plagiarized from both mainstream writers and far-right bloggers. In his paranoid vision of a forthcoming European civil war, it is clear that Israel was merely an ally of convenience, an enemy of his enemy. Breivik’s manifesto thunders against the “paralyzing Jewish Holocaust religion,” lamenting the “school classes being bussed to former concentration camps and taught to reject their culture.” He proclaims, in perfect fascist pitch, that the United States is suffering from “a considerable Jewish problem.”

His supposed “neoconservatism” is equally tenuous. When asked by prosecutors to identify the point at which he committed himself to anti-Muslim violence, Breivik cited the American-led bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, then diligently murdering Balkan Muslims, as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” His manifesto complains that the Western media have been unduly tough on Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and Russian president Vladimir Putin (“a fair and resolute leader worthy of respect”), who, after all, converted Muslim Chechnya to a vast pile of corpses and rubble.

In fact, during his trial, Breivik explained that while eliminating future left-wing leaders​—​almost all of whom were non-Muslim​—​was the primary goal of his attacks, he also desired to drag mainstream conservatives towards his worldview by making them intellectually complicit in his crimes. “I felt I had to provoke a witch-hunt against moderate cultural conservatives and nationalists,” he told the court, which would force a “radicalization” of immigration critics.

While Breivik induced revulsion, the media have indeed succumbed to the temptation to engage in the witch-hunt he desired. In northern Europe, prosaic debates over the integration of immigrants are increasingly conflated with Breivik’s odious anti-Islam rhetoric. Thus was born what you might call the Breivik veto: Because a sociopath offered unreasonable answers to perfectly reasonable questions, better not to ask the questions at all.

The Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, Scandinavia’s largest newspaper, intoned recently that “Breivik hates multiculturalism and feminism [and] the ‘politically correct’ ”​—​opinions that he “shares with many.” The newspaper marveled that, in a post-Breivik world, Sweden’s state-funded broadcaster could even broach the subject “Has immigration gone too far?” during primetime. Who would deign to debate an issue that also consumed Anders Breivik? 

In a recent opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post, the Swedish writer Paulina Neuding pointed to a correlation between increased anti-Semitic incidents in the southern Swedish city of Malmö and increased immigration from Muslim countries. The Breivik veto was quickly deployed: An Aftonbladet editorial writer declared that Neuding was flirting with “the central conceptual model of Breivik’s world.” Underscoring the dramatic demographic shifts the city has undergone, Neuding noted that in 2004, Mohammad was the most popular baby name in Malmö, a useful metric, she argued, because the government doesn’t keep statistics on religious affiliation. Her Aftonbladet critic mused, however, that during his shooting spree, Breivik targeted children​—​an “extreme manifestation” of Neuding’s argument.

Swedish journalist Martin Aagård flatly stated that Breivik is representative of an entire strain of thought: “After having seen Anders Behring Breivik cry while watching his own propaganda film in an Oslo courtroom, I will never again understand those who voluntarily identify as ‘cultural conservatives.’ ”

It is of little consequence to those deploying the Breivik veto that his ideology, such as it is, consists of a single theme​—​a pathological hatred of Islam​—​and owes a greater debt to al Qaeda than to Edmund Burke. Breivik, who planned on capturing and beheading Norway’s prime minister and has spoken fondly of “martyrdom,” said in court that “militant nationalists in Europe have a great deal to learn” from al Qaeda.

But while al Qaeda boasts a network of supporters and aspiring shahids, Western Europe isn’t teeming with Breivik acolytes. He claimed to have operated within a larger underground revolutionary movement, telling investigators that he was but one soldier in a network of “Knights Templar” warriors, but this was quickly determined to have been fantasy. When the Norwegian media managed to track down a Breivik supporter, it was one twitching college student living outside Worcester, Massachusetts.

The media’s curiosity to discover whether there was a cadre of violent ultranationalists behind Breivik, while entirely justified, isn’t evenly applied. The Muslim extremist analogue to Breivik’s anti-Muslim extremism could be found in Toulouse, France, where earlier this year the homegrown Islamist Mohammed Merah massacred French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren​—​lest they grow up to be Zionist enemies. Despite the obvious parallels to the Norwegian massacre, there was considerably less media concern with the rotten ideological milieu that shaped Merah. When the prominent Swiss Muslim Tariq Ramadan weighed in on the killings, he dismissed Merah as “a victim of a social order which had already doomed him and millions of others” to the margins of society, and certainly not a man “driven by racism and anti-Semitism.”

According to Ramadan, Merah found “two political causes through which he could articulate his distress: Afghanistan and Palestine.” But no one has suggested that critics of Israel or opponents of France’s participation in the Afghan war are flirting with “the central conceptual model of Mohammed Merah’s world.” And they are right not to.

Michael Moynihan is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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