'Vicious and Terrifying'

Bernard Porter · The Utøya Massacre

Sweden isn’t Norway, and relations between the two countries aren’t as sisterly as outsiders might assume. But of course there’s wall-to-wall coverage of recent events here – 27 pages of Saturday’s Expressen, and SVT2 relaying NRK’s live reporting 24 hours a day – and immense sympathy. From pictures of it, Utøya could well be an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, like the one I’m writing from now. There’s enormous admiration in Sweden for the way the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has responded to the atrocity. Also, the reluctance of the authorities and local media to jump to the conclusion that it was the work of Islamists – despite a (supposed) Islamist website immediately claiming ‘credit’ for it.

That Anders Behring Breivik was allowed (it seems) to surrender peacefully is contrasted with what would probably – people say – have happened in Britain or the USA. (He would have been shot anyway.) Of course that poses problems. He’ll have to be tried, which is what he wants, in order to grandstand. The latest I’ve heard is that the trial will take place in camera, for ‘security’ reasons. Stoltenberg originally insisted that the events would not be allowed to compromise the openness of Norwegian society. But it seems there are limits.

One thing that surprised us in Sweden is that Breivik’s main target was Norwegian Social Democracy; for its appeasement, I imagine, of the greater threats of multiculturalism, political correctness, Marxism and feminism. Mona Sahlin, the former Swedish SD leader, was another target of his propaganda. The victims of the Utøya massacre were young Norwegian Social Democrats, as if Breivik was aiming to take out the entire next generation of Labour leaders with one blow.

Scandinavia is bound to be a home for white racism, in view of its importance in Nazi and proto-Nazi ideology. Breivik certainly looks the part, chillingly. But it is only a very minority discourse here. According to one Swedish view, the extreme Right is more widespread in Sweden – it’s what Stieg Larsson was researching before he wrote his novels, in which neo-Nazism plays an essential part – but more violent in Norway.

Reading Breivik’s views on a number of things, I was reminded of Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel-prizewinning novelist who was also a Nazi sympathiser through and through; and especially of this: the yearning of the protagonist of his novel Mysteries (1892) for the coming of the man whom ‘we may see only once in a thousand years’, the ‘super-mind’, capable of perpetrating ‘extraordinarily vicious and terrifying’ villainies; ‘none of your minor transgressions!’ I imagine Breivik knows his Hamsun? He must do.

Thorough analysis, and lessons, if there are any, will come later. For the moment all we can do is sorrow with our neighbours, and admire the strong humanity of their response.


  • 25 July 2011 at 1:02pm
    Benjamin says:
    I posted this on Stephen Walt's Foreign Policy blog, but I'll post it here too,

    European Media

    The situation in Norway is tragic and my deepest sympathies go out to those in mourning.

    The larger question revolves around the virulent growth of anti-muslim sentiment throughout europe and north america which the majority of the media are directly complicit in.
    I can't help but feel this hateful rhetoric has been given tacit approval by large swathes of the conservative and social democratic political classes as a useful tool in bolstering support for western interventions in Iraq, Afganistan and now Libya (which are in fact deeply unpopular in a majority of european countries). Conflating Islam with tyranny (even if it's western backed) or terror (not state terror though!) provides a useful means of justifying foreign policy in the minds of the public.

    Being an Islamophobe in much of europe is not something people are, by in large, particularly ashamed of. Rather then simply condem an act of violence, it seems easier for the Right to denigrate a culture, belief (even if it's a widely held belief outside of that culture), or even dress as a way of seeking to degrade people who share that culture, belief or dress.

    It's telling then that the Right has been quick to disassociate itself from Breivk, it's own repudiated violence, as if they themselves were not an integral part of it's inner formation. That violence has come home to roost, tragically on left leaning children at a camp in norway, is also depressingly unsuprising.

    • 26 July 2011 at 3:54pm
      outofdate says: @ Benjamin
      I'm an Islamophobe myself. The idiocy, surely, is hoisting any banner; so that in England, for example, despising Islam for being the most primitive and boring of the three desert religions -- which it is -- somehow equates to being in favour of scorched-earth capitalism, hating immigrants, worshipping Evelyn Woff, Margaret Thatcher and General Pinochet, wanting to continue the war on drugs and loving opera, when in fact they're all equally fuckwitted persuasions, none better than any other, all forgivable, and none bad enough to kill anyone for.

    • 26 July 2011 at 11:17pm
      Benjamin says: @ outofdate
      And that’s the idiocy? What if the immigrants are, as in many cases, muslims? Perhaps you'd just go where your bigotry leads. I'd recommend the late Edward Said's analysis of european Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I appreciate your erudite analysis of violence, but I assume Arendt would not have had anything to worry about.

    • 27 July 2011 at 1:17am
      outofdate says: @ Benjamin
      I think my point was that only bigots presume to know where my bigotry leads, and to denounce me for it at top volume, maybe graduating to pogroms by and by, and maybe not. Not that I made it very well, but at least I kept that Arendt fellow out of it.

    • 27 July 2011 at 5:45am
      Benjamin says: @ outofdate
      Small Comfort. I think you're right, it doesn't seem to be your original point. To be clear, I didn't presume to know where your bigotry will lead, not that you suggested I did...indeed, who could ever know?

    • 27 July 2011 at 12:59pm
      outofdate says: @ Benjamin
      Small comfort's better than none. My objection (to try and be even clearer without dragging any more windbags into the discussion) is that Norwegiannutter is not the inevitable culmination of Islamophobia, he's first and foremost mad, and when a man's that far gone any ideology will provide fodder for the madness. We can pelt each other till kingdom come with examples of one or the other side of the great, wholly fictional divide (I don't think, for example, the Red Army Faction or Carlos the Jackal, your people, were by any reasonable definition sane).

      So it seems whatstheword precipitate to pin the attack on The Right, especially since we no longer know what The Right is, or for that matter what The Left is, except at the horrible, primitive level where people support their party like a football club, and swallow the whole idiotic package (and all packages are idiotic) just so they can be done with thought once and for all.

      I do grudgingly take your point that it's a small step from hating Islam to hating Muslims, but look: this blog has no far-right readers. Who are you preaching to? I really do despise Islam, partly because I learned to despise Christianity first. I really don't have anything against Muslims. That's as far as my bigotry goes. The fallacy of multiculturalism is that we must treat all religions except our own with bug-eyed reverence, for fear that having an opinion about them might lead somewhere. But that, do you see, is precisely the extremist argument: close the doors to contingency, close the doors to the doors to contingency, and so on ad infinitum.

      Why not instead cut through the mountains of theoretical 'authority' -- I'll take your Hannah whatsit and raise you Ortega, and blah and blah and blah -- and say: the awful task before us is to endure the presence in our midst of arrant morons, and if we can do it, so can they.

    • 27 July 2011 at 2:02pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      If you have decided that he is mad, so be it - I don't think that it gets us anywhere by making that statement. If I may use an authority that you might accept, think of Chaplin's portrayal of Adlof Hilter in 'The Great Dictator'. Chaplin made him into a crazed dreamer of world domination, but that doesn't help anybody to understand how this leads to the Shoah. I don't believe that it makes any difference whether Breivik is 'sane' or 'insane' - the use of these terms is a fruitless attempt to make sense out of the violent deaths of 76 people because of a set of beliefs that on individual gathered from his long hours trawling the web. He did waht he did because he believes that 'his' civilisation is under threat from the Norwegian Social Democrats and he felt serious enough to plan the attack over years. But I want to know how he came to accept this belief.

    • 27 July 2011 at 3:47pm
      outofdate says: @ Geoff Roberts
      In the words of FR Leavis: yes, but you're wrong. He did what he did because he's mad, and the proof of his madness (cicular though that may seem) is that he killed all these people. There is no point reasoning with the man, is there? The people he killed were only by the most far-fetched logic the future retrospective cause of the threat to his civilisation; his civilisation is worthless (is not a civilisation) if it requires the death of so many people; and so on. He's nuts. That is of the essence. That millions can go insane, as they did in the Third Reich, is at the root of the problem. That's where you have to start. Not with the supposed reasoning behind the thing: with the madness.

      What people think they think has little if any bearing on what they do.

    • 29 July 2011 at 1:33pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      So, if we say that he's nuts, what then? How does this lead us any further along towards finding out what his reasons were - oh, but he's nuts so he can't have 'reasons' can he?

  • 25 July 2011 at 1:20pm
    semitone says:
    Reading Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Mysteries and Pan over the last few months was one of the most intense and enjoyable reading experiences of my life. There's a lot of Dostoevsky in there, and a lot of Nietzche, and a lot that I'm sure went straight over my head, but I didn't pick up anything of what would later be called Nazism. They are more "psychological" than political, I think, though there is a social consciousness throughout (especially in Hunger). But, as James Wood as argued (and I believe him), when Hamsun wrote those three books he was still firmly a man of the left. The Nazism came later.

  • 26 July 2011 at 1:35pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    It's very sobering to learn that Nazism can still attract the attention of people like Breivik, even after sixty years of research and countless studies of the whole era from its beginnings up to the nemesis in 1945. Breivik has imbibed most of the attitudes except for Anti-Semitism, but I guess that is there under the surface. It would be instructive to hear how he came to adopt such aggressive views and something about his background. The response of the Norwegians has been most moving. Hope that they keep their laidback approach to public life. His lawyer says that Breivik is 'insane' - as if that explains anything.

  • 27 July 2011 at 7:37am
    philip proust says:
    I think that the question of Breivik's sanity is important, Geoff.

    There is a significant difference between a case that involves a psychopath who is acting out a paranoid fantasy and a case where a fanatic is a part of a co-ordinated and coherent conspiracy against the liberal state. Clearly Hitler and his accomplices fit the latter category, whereas the delusional Timothy McVeigh fits the former. The sanity or otherwise of Breivik and McVeigh is obviously irrelevant to the fate of the victims; however, if one is making an assessment of the extent of the threat the attack poses, the mental health and social position of the assailant is crucial.

    • 27 July 2011 at 2:11pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ philip proust
      But he could be acting out a paranoid fantasy AND be part of a conspiracy - is a conspiracy ever coherent? Surely, we can never assess just how serious a certain threat might be before something happens. take Mohammad Atta and his friends, who lived quietly in Hamburg, planned their attack and shook the structure of the United States to its foundations. Was Atta sane? Maybe he wasn't - my point is that the causes are much more important than vague statements about a person's mental state.

    • 27 July 2011 at 11:15pm
      Benjamin says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Exactly - it's important to deconstruct the fantasy and attempt to wrest it from it's own violence.

  • 27 July 2011 at 2:26pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Here's something from the New Yorker, by Mark Singer:
    When something horrifying exceeds our sense of natural proportion, we instinctively seek refuge in our own incomprehension. Confronted with sufficiently violent acts, we invariably resort to language (“monster,” “evil”) that depicts the doers of the deeds as other than human. These are more than just words, but unfortunately they teach us nothing.

  • 28 July 2011 at 11:18pm
    alex says:
    Bit of a fucker this.
    Man kills 92 people.
    How will the state survive this?
    Because the state is rational.
    The state makes man in its own image.
    In doing so, the state imputes rationality to man who kills 92 people.
    Man who kills 92 people must therefore be more rational than man who kills 1.
    People therefore try to understand the man.
    Except it doesn't follow, that because he was more dangerous, he must be more intelligible.
    PR at it worst.

  • 29 July 2011 at 4:29pm
    estrella says:
    The mention of Hamsun in the article is really off the mark. Had Breivik actually known and revered the books of Hamsun then the worst he could have done would have been to shoot himself in the foot.

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