Norway's atrocity: the mental tunnel

The deadly attacks in Norway are fuelling debate about multiculturalism, immigration, security and radicalisation. But more attention must also be paid to the behaviours and attitudes that underlie extreme political violence, says Sara Silvestri.

Sara Silvestri
29 July 2011

The perpetrator of the horrible attacks of 22 July 2011 in Norway accompanied his inhuman deeds with propaganda materials that mix condemnation of his most hated targets (Marxism, Islam, immigration, multiculturalism) with glorification of medieval knights and crusaders. The moving reaction of the Norwegian people and leaders has been an impressive answer to Anders Behring Breivik’s hateful actions. But it is inevitable that the tragedy will provoke further debates there and across Europe on such questions as multiculturalism, immigration, radicalisation, and security.

The chance of these debates proving useful or enlightening will depend in large part on their being conducted reasonably, by agreeing on a shared starting-point and avoiding easy scapegoating. But they also will require something else: becoming more aware than before of the kinds of behaviours and attitudes that can move people such as Breivik to think and act in violent ways. These include self-isolation (and mutually-supportive isolation) on the net, the targeting of people according to the category they are supposed to belong to, and the division of the world into like-minded (good) and differently-minded (bad).

The living process

Before addressing these deep-rooted problems, there is much that can be done by clarifying the terms of debate on issues such as multiculturalism. The notion remains fuzzy and contested, and there are many models and philosophical accounts of it as (variously) a public policy, a political doctrine, and a social fact. But the framing of a reasoned debate about it needs to take account of realities that will continue to exist whatever attitudes are adopted to the subject conceived in the abstract.

These include the fact that European citizens are (willingly or unwillingly) living in societies that are increasingly diverse in terms of (for example) culture, language, religion, and sexual orientation. This is one of the social transformations that are happening all the time and can hardly be reversed.

This is also what history is about, and it has produced great human achievements. Civilisation has progressed because cultures have met and interacted. Everyone is the product of a métissage: cultures and identities are by definition fluid, and cannot be static or pure. Moreover, just as individuals change throughout their lives, so do societies. As they do so there is a tendency to rewrite the past as a golden age, but this is both a myth and a retrospective creation.

There is a great need for policies that enable people to cope with this social change and increasing diversity, promote respect for all human beings, and encourage a sense of the common good. If very few would object to such an approach (which could be called a “broad” form of multiculturalism), more would question its “narrow” form as a policy that allows or even encourages communalism, fragmentation, and enclave mentalities. But where there are such problems, they can in principle be addressed and corrected, as happens in other policy areas (such as finance or technology).

Yet at this level the discussion of multiculturalism (and the same is true of other issues raised by the Norwegian catastrophe, such as security and radicalisation) does not touch the deeper currents (emotional or psychological) that are under the surface. It seems that no debate about the benefits or costs of multiculturalism - and most public argument in Europe in recent years has focused on the latter - reaches those who nurture negative feelings towards migrants or the Islamic faith, for example. There are broader anxieties that at root have little do with any identified enemy, and until there is some way to reach and address these the kind of discussion that follows events such as those in Norway will not go as far as they need.

The inner forces

What could be done to go further? The case of the killer in Norway suggests that three problems need more attention.

The first is the internet and its tendency (alongside many positive effects) to allow people motivated by a cause to develop exclusivist ties and understandings of identity, perhaps becoming more extreme in the process. The easy availability of propaganda on the net and its appeal to those who seek confirmation of their existing views can become part of a reinforcing spiral where the “echo chamber” of certainty is not balanced by any contrary or challenging view. This seems to have been among the processes at work that led to the Norwegian tragedy.   

The second is the use of categorisation as a way of defining, limiting - and targeting - sections of the population. Again, Breivik’s “manifesto” and his terrible actions are a dreadful example of where this way of thinking, taken to the extreme, can lead. But it is also prevalent at a policy level, in (for example) European counter-terrorism policies which conceive of individuals and “suspect communities” in homogeneous ways and attribute to them fixed religious, ethnic, or cultural affiliations - without appreciating either the huge varieties that exist within communities or the great changes that individuals undergo.

This has led to many examples of infringement of rights, but also to a neglect of potential dangers from people who are not seen to fall into the appropriate “category” (it is notable, for example, that researchers and activists in Britain have long expressed their concerns about right-wing extremism, yet this theme is explicitly downplayed in the government’s new Contest strategy published only days before the Norway incidents).

The third problem is the mentality that divides the world into two sides, the goodness or purity of one giving it the right to attack and kill the other. Breivik’s outpourings are pervaded by this mentality, and in this they resemble the mindset of al-Qaida and similar groups ostensibly at the opposite side of the spectrum.

This suggests that the real worry should be less particular forms of extremism (European right-wing or Islamist, for example) than the shared phenomenon of homogenising, reductive, and dogmatic forms of thought, built around rigid understandings of identity and enmity, and impermeable to dialogue with anyone outside the lucky tribe.

These three problems operate on a level that may make them less amenable to clear policy responses than the familiar themes of multiculturalism, radicalisation, and extremism tend to produce. But insofar as they are all underlying factors in the Norwegian atrocities, the debate around this event should take them into account. A deeper and more holistic understanding of how these behaviours and mentalities influence the crimes of people like Anders Behring Breivik could help ensure that such crimes are never repeated.

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