Norway: words as weapons

The massacre in Norway cannot be ascribed only to the killer’s mental derangement. It also reflects the everyday nourishment of fear and hatred in the political arena, says Petter Nome.
Petter Nome
26 July 2011

What kind of mental and moral disorder leads a 32-year-old man to annihilate the heart of political life in a peaceful nation by massacring dozens of young people in a summer camp?

Even as the horror was still unfolding, a psychologist friend of mine commented: “This looks like the ultimate patricide, the modus of a person who was betrayed by the authorities of his childhood and as a result developed in his adulthood extreme hatred towards all kinds of authorities.”

It took a few days for information about Anders Behring Breivik’s main “childhood authority” to emerge. Jens Breivik, encountering news of his son’s crimes over the internet at his home in southern France, expressed shock. His son seemed “quite normal” when they “last met” - in 1995. My friend may have hit the nail quite accurately. In any case, many more such profiles and analyses will surely follow.

But to define what has happened only in terms of the mentality of the killer can lead down a dead-end road. This nightmare is also about politics and its uses. Breivik had been planning his atrocities for much of the nine years it took to write his 1.500-page manifesto. During some of this period, 1999-2006, he was a member of Norway’s Progress Party and served in leadership posts in its Oslo branch. He was a member of the Freemasons and admires their predecessors, the Knights Templars and crusaders. He identifies himself as a Christian fundamentalist and strongly supports the state of Israel.

The “philosophy” outlined in Breivik’s long document is extreme and paranoid, but - shorn of its medieval and militarist obsessions - much of it is an all too recognisable version of ideas and arguments that can be heard in everyday conversations in streets and pubs - and in mainstream politics. His generic anti-Muslim gospel and hostility to “multiculturalisation” are the clearest examples. But Mr Breivik has much more on his intelligent if deeply disturbed mind. He wants to:

* Replace western democracies with administrative rule

* Increase the birthrate in western countries by banning abortion

* Give more cultural power to the church

* Impose the death penalty after three criminal convictions

* Put drug addicts into concentration-camps

* Force re-education on “marxists”.

There are populist parties and movements in most European countries that, backed by “common-sense” language and wrapped in smoother packaging, champion at least some of these ideas. The freedom to advocate intolerance, repression or weird ideas is their right in a democratic society, but what is wrong is that most of these political currents build their power and influence on suspicion towards other people and groups - especially those they hardly know. They work hard to nourish fear and suspicion in their target population. These feelings can bring them a reward in votes - but can also be transformed into real hatred and actual violence.

The ripples of rhetoric

The Progress Party is Norway’s second biggest after the Labour Party. It currently holds 41 out of 169 seats in parliament. Its leader, Ms Siv Jensen, professed shock at the fact that Mr Breivik is a former member. Her tears and strained expression confirm it. But, up to this point, did she ever carry a single brick to the bridge most of us in Norway are trying to build between people and cultures? She never did. Did she ever talk loosely about “Islamisation” and “national” and “Christian” values in order to stir fears and gain votes? She did, almost every day.

Ms Jensen is not a supporter of violence. Neither are most of her colleagues in populist and right-wing parties in Europe. But she should not be allowed her shock and puffed face without also having to answer for past words and tactics. For she and those of the same political style carry the profound responsibility of fomenting a climate where some of their most impatient followers can begin to regard hatred and violence as options.

At this moment, Norway is united in grief and sorrow. Everyday political controversies are swept away. The central government area looks like a war-zone, but a mountain of flowers and candles is growing outside Oslo’s cathedral. People across the country mourn the victims and feel the deepest sympathy with their loved ones. There is no visible anger, no loud cries for revenge. Just silent despair, quietly proud moments of dignity. A teenage girl, one of the Utøya survivors, speaks for many: “If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we all can show together.”

The government has declared that these attacks will not alter the freedom and openness of the Norwegian society. “The Norway of tomorrow will look the same”, says the country’s foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre. I hope he is right.

But a tomorrow must also come when vital questions of responsibility and its lessons are addressed. That day needs to arrive not only in Norway, but in all European countries where fear, contempt, distance and hate are now both the means and the goals of political rhetoric.

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