Something rotten in the kingdom of Norway

At the end of his trial, the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was deemed sufficiently sane to be imprisoned. But the process and outcome, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen, open another question: will Norway now use the opportunity to deal with its inner demons, namely the sources of Breivik's hatred of a culturally diverse new country?

The terrorist trial in Norway dragged on from 16 April 2012, just after Easter, until midsummer. Opinion in the country was divided as to whether it was appropriate to give Anders Behring Breivik what he wanted the most, namely the sustained attention of the media, national (continuously) and international (largely during the first week). Most agreed, on balance, that it was, not out of consideration for him, but because the country needed this thoroughness.

When the trial finally ground to an inconclusive halt - the verdict would have to wait for two months - there was a sense of conditional relief in the public sphere. Months of continuous media commentary ultimately led to “Breivik fatigue” in Norway. His name, and face, brought up the mixed feelings of nausea and morbid fascination. By 22 June, the people of Norway were ready to go on holiday and think about other things than the sordid details of Breivik's life and the heartbreaking details of his terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011.

Admittedly, the focus did shift a few times in the course of the trial. Its first weeks were concerned mainly with the horrible events of the bombing of the government buildings in Oslo and the massacre at Utøya, with the victims, the survivors and the bereaved. It was painful, but probably necessary for those involved, and indeed for the broader public, to go calmly through the details of the atrocities committed by Breivik, as a collective act of catharsis.

By late May, the topic discussed in and outside the courtroom was almost exclusively Breivik's state of mind. The term tilregnelighet, hard to translate - it refers to sanity/accountability - was the key concept for weeks, and the critics of forensic psychiatry had a field day since the two psychiatric reports on his mental health reached opposite conclusions. When the court finally adjourned, the burning question in the Norwegian public sphere, helped by innumerable media and Facebook commentators, was whether or not Breivik was to be considered morally responsible.

After the summer break, a second shift took place with the publication of the report of the independent 22 July commission. The report was scathing in its criticism of the police, and the media subsequently spent weeks interrogating politicians about the consequences.

In the end, media talk about Breivik was segueing into a numbing background murmur.

A great unmentionable

The relentless media interest in the trial makes the omissions highly significant. Given the ideological reasoning behind the terrorist attacks, it is striking how the politics of right-wing terrorism have consistently been relegated to the background. Now that the verdict has been submitted and Breivik has been declared sane and sentenced to jail for twenty-one years (the maximum sanction under Norwegian law), it may well be asked if the Norwegian public sphere has learned anything at all about the ideology of hatred motivating Breivik in the first place.

In fact, Breivik himself did his best to shift the gaze of the public towards the political, by portraying himself as a dangerous terrorist inspired by counter-jihadism and conspiracist fantasies involving collusion between western elites and Muslim plotters. In response, it was sometimes intimated that he is not a dangerous right-wing terrorist as he claims, just a deranged lunatic.

There is broad agreement in Norway that Breivik's views and acts should not prevent an “open debate” about immigration and cultural diversity. Associating anti-immigrant views with Breivik is generally seen as tasteless. As a result, resentment and contempt of immigrants, Muslims in particular, continue to flourish, especially on the net, as if nothing had happened. Only in early August, a politician from the populist Progress Party wrote on his Facebook wall that he “hated Muslims”. The party leadership politely asked him to phrase his words differently in the future, without questioning his views. The Progress Party is one of the country's three largest political parties, and may form a coalition government with the Conservatives after the general election due in 2013.

22 July may still go down in history as a warning against worldviews based on fictions of ethnic purity and hatred of the other. Yet, as the dust slowly begins to settle, there is a risk that we will instead end up with a psychiatric diagnosis and demands for more state security, interspersed with the obligatory national vanity (which sympathetic but unwary outsiders indulge) portraying Norwegians as world-champions of national solidarity and quiet empathy. The ideology fuelling Breivik's hatred may, instead of being critically interrogated, end up as a great unmentionable, a malaise ignored by the therapeutic programme developed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. There is something rotten in the kingdom of Norway, but we are on the brink of wasting a golden opportunity to address it.

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About the author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here