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Dealing with the Real Anders Breivik

How, exactly, could a right-wing terrorist convince liberals he was, in fact, a right-wing terrorist?

It’s a question Anders Breivik no doubt ponders.

Remember, before embarking on his murderous mission, Breivik compiled and distributed a lengthy manifesto, precisely to dispel any mystery about his motivations. Now, he stands in the dock, giving military salutes and explaining, again and again and again, about why he did what he did.

Yet, somehow, liberal pundits and politicians refuse to listen. Breivik talks politics – and then the pop psychologists dredge through his biography for eccentricities to explain his actions away.

That response seems itself almost pathological, an obsessive refusal to acknowledge that Breivik might represent what he claims, that he’s not a weak-minded isolate bewitched by ‘World of Warcraft’ but an experienced far-right activist acting to advance specific political goals.

Most of all, the dime store diagnoses obscure just how widely Breivik’s ideas are shared.

‘This is an unconventional war. We are in a war, we are in a clash of civilisations. The thing I want to leave with you in closing is that we are the soldiers. The soldiers are not in uniform. There are no armies on the field. The armies on the field are there, they’re doing noble work but that’s only one small part. The main struggle is right here. And we are it. This is a battle for the soul of Australia, for the soul of Europe, for the soul of America, for the soul of the west. And its outcome is not at all decided, as dire as it may look, because we have not yet begun to fight. It is up to us.’

The passage might have come, word-for-word, from Breivik’s testimony. But it didn’t.

It’s part of a recent speech by Robert Spencer, a luminary of the Islamophobic Right. Spencer runs the wildly popular Jihad Watch blog. He’s also, with Pamela Geller, the co-founder of Stop the Islamization of America, and an important ideologue in the loose network of bloggers, activists and political groups known as the ‘Counter Jihad’ movement.

In that milieu, as the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate documents in an important new report, all of Breivik’s theses circulate. Islam poses an existential threat to Western civilisation; seemingly peaceable Muslims are surreptitiously engaged in ‘stealth jihad’; Muslim immigrants represent a demographic time bomb; that multiculturalists are tacitly supporting the Islamic enemy; that the universities and the media are dominated by ‘cultural Marxists’ seeking to legitimise sharia law: it’s all there.

Hope not Hate explains:

“The ‘Counter-Jihad’ movement is the new face of the political right in Europe. The old racial nationalism of fascists and racists are receding but in its place are right wing populist parties and movements which make Islam the issue and Muslims the target. It manifests itself in
different ways, in different countries, but its underlying message is the same. Sometimes it is focused around the single issue of Islam, but in other situations it becomes interwoven with wider politics of immigration, culture, loss and identity.”

Naturally, the ideologues of counter jihad denounced Breivik’s murders.

But they never renounced his ideas. Instead, they asserted that the very extremity of his acts proved him insane, with that insanity differentiating his thesis about the necessity of war against the Islamic peril from their own articulation of precisely the same argument.

The liberal refusal to engage with Breivik’s politics works the same way: No normal person could murder kids like that. By definition, Breivik must not be normal – and, therefore, everything he says can be safely discounted.

But in Breivik’s testimony, he explained in detail just how his grim deeds become viable. Because he recognised that a mass killing would be psychologically difficult, he consciously set out to ‘de-emotionalise’ himself via meditation and other techniques.

‘You have to choose tactics and strategies to dehumanise … the enemy … those who I see as legitimate targets,’ he explained.

There’s nothing crazy about that. The modern military does the same thing and for exactly the same reason – to enable ordinary people to kill.

Breivik, in other words, took Spencer’s rhetoric of war seriously. He duly set out to become a warrior, using a homemade version of the training by which recruits prepare for close-quarters combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s why it’s so dangerous to pretend he’s some psychological anomaly.

Over the last week, the trial has allowed Breivik to propagandise for an Islamophobic program that already enjoys considerable support.

Let’s quote Hope Not Hate again:

“In the United States, three states have already banned Sharia law from being practised. It is being debated by another twenty. In Switzerland, people voted for a ban on Minarets despite the fact that there were only four in the country. In France, politicians of the centre and right are trying to outbid each other in the Presidential elections to prove how hardline they are on Muslim practices and extremism. The fear of Islam is playing an increasingly important role in the political discourse in many countries.”

Psychoanalysing such ideas away doesn’t make them vanish. Instead, it discredits anti-racists, for the simple reason that those sympathetic to anti-Muslim bigotry can recognise, quite plainly, that there’s little to distinguish what Breivik says from the rhetoric  of Geert Wilders or Daniel Pipes or Mark Steyn or other number of impeccably mainstream figures.

‘Breivik is no gifted writer,’ says a commenter on Spencer’s blog, ‘but what I’ve read of his manifesto his thinking is far from incoherent. His use of Wikipedia’s entry on The Frankfurt School was an eye-opener to me and well deserving of study to understand how Europe is undergoing cultural repudiation on such a suicidal scale.’

‘In other words,’ says another, ‘Anders Breivik should not be on trial — ISLAM should be on trial. And the verdict — GUILTY.’

In that discussion, we see the terrifying potential for Breivik to emerge as the John Brown of counter jihad: fanatical, excessive and violent, yet lauded as a hero willing to put principles into action.

After Hitler’s defeat, the invocation of the Holocaust helped marginalise would-be fuhrers for decades, as anti-racists said loudly, ‘We’ve seen your ideas before – and they left six million dead.’

The tragedy in Norway provides a similar opportunity to isolate the new crop of bigots and hatemongers. Those who mutter about civil war against multiculturalists and Muslims should be confronted, again and again, with Utoya, for it’s where their rhetoric leads.

It’s well past time to stop kidding ourselves that Breivik can be explained away via mental illness. The far Right is real and it’s growing. We urgently need a political response.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

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