Language, violence & politics: Breivik trial puts liberal democracy to the test

by · April 20, 2012

A ‘normal’ trial for a most abnormal criminal: Breivik shakes hands with a court psychiatrist

With Anders Breivik’s trial underway, Left Flank will be analysing the politics both here and at the Overland website. Below we reprint the first of two parts of an abridged extract from the e-book that Guy Rundle, Elizabeth Humphrys and I edited last year, On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe. The chapter examines how some mainstream voices have responded to the rise in extremist language, and how the Left can formulate a response. If you haven’t yet done so, buy and download the book via the Amazon stores in the United Kingdom or the United States (if you don’t have a smartphone/iPad/Kindle, you can read it on your PC with a free Kindle app).

It seems a fitting place to start because if the first few days of the trial have proven anything it’s that the efforts to provide the terrorist with as ‘normal’ a trial as possible are being used by him to turn it into a platform for his propaganda and to legitimate his defence of ‘necessity’. Even if Breivik ends up getting what the criminal law would suggest is a ‘just’ outcome (found sane, responsible and guilty, and locked up in perpetuity), the liberal democratic response to his fascist political strategy is likely to be found seriously wanting.

It was disturbing, for example, to see court officials voluntarily shake Breivik’s hand as proceedings started. On day two Breivik was able to spend more than twice the allotted time reading his opening statement, a recapitulation of his claim that he is a frontline soldier in a war to save European Christian Civilisation from Marxists, Muslims and multiculturalism. Some commentators have said it is still ‘baffling’ why he carried out the attacks, still searching for a ‘deeper’ reason than his stated ideological one. But with anti-Muslim and anti-multicultural sentiment on the rise in Norway, with it being increasingly clear that Breivik is part of a growing and radicalising European far Right, and with the Norwegian state killing Muslims as part of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, it becomes harder to draw a clear line of any sort between Breivik and policies and ideologies driven by social elites.

Of course, the other option is to admit this and instead try to legitimate anti-multicultural sentiment while arguing Breivik went too far, or to simply declare that multiculturalism is to blame for creating Breivik, as the execrable Brendan O’Neill has done in extending arguments tackled below. Part 2 will be posted on Sunday.

Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage cannot be understood abstracted from the social and political conjuncture in which it emerged: The rise in far Right, racist and Islamophobic commentary, websites and organisations; the increasing insertion of such themes into mainstream debates; and government policies centred around endless war, national security, border control, and the policing of minority communities.

It is important to deconstruct the arguments being mustered in the mainstream as to how to respond to this context. Here I critique approaches that have emerged to the problem of violence associated with political language — so as to outline an alternative based in treating both Breivik and the mainstreamed hard Right politically.

The dominant response to Breivik by conventional and right-wing commentators has been to call him insane — acting because of pathology rather than political conviction. This has been buttressed by a court psychiatric report diagnosing Breivik with ‘Paranoid Schizophrenia’. A storm of controversy has erupted in the report’s wake, driven by its sloppy application of psychiatric categories and ignorance of far Right subcultures and ideologies that shaped Breivik’s beliefs.

Yet, even in the unlikely event that Breivik is psychotic, the focus on madness has served a political purpose for those not wanting to deal with the growing influence of the far Right. Behind this ‘insanity defence’ lies the idea that politics is inherently a zone of rationality where, however inflammatory the discourse, the actions that such ideas engender will remain safely within acceptable limits. Thus, those who take action based on open discussion of ‘wars’ with defined ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’, of the need to use ‘force’ to protect against ‘existential threats’ posed by multiculturalism, Muslim immigration, and the loss of national and ethnic sovereignty, have clearly stepped outside the bounds of reason, and must be disowned accordingly.

One is tempted to say, then, that the argument is paradoxical. Because if the hard Right of the mainstream has proposed a militant, life and death struggle against Muslims, multiculturalists and Marxists, then when someone like Breivik takes their words literally they dismiss him by claiming, ‘Look how mad this man is, he actually took us seriously! How could we possibly be blamed for that?’

A second response has come from a pseudo-movement practiced in retailing crude versions of Enlightenment themes, what British writer Dan Hind has called the ‘Folk Enlightenment’. Its progenitors share a rabid commitment to narrowly defined standards of rational inquiry, carried out on the assumption that the status quo of technologically-centred market capitalism is the height of human achievement, its liberating effects merely being held back by backward superstition. One example is the UK-based libertarian website Spiked, which sees the collapse of old binaries of Left and Right as driving the turn to reactionary tropes of the pre-Enlightenment era.

Brendan O’Neill and his Spiked collaborators focus on demands for absolute rights of free speech, arguing that even instances of ‘incitement’ are not enough reason to limit those rights. Such an extreme view must be underpinned by a complete philosophical separation between ideas and actions:

So long as we don’t physically attack someone or something, we should be free to hate it as much as we like and to tell people that we hate it. Hatred might not always be big and clever … but it’s a thing that lies in the realm of thought and speech, and the authorities have no business there.

To maintain consistency, Spiked has been obsessed with denying any link between the rise in Islamophobic ideas coming out of politicians’ and pundits’ mouths with the incidence of discrimination or violence. For instance, they have selectively used UK police and court statistics to ‘prove’ there has been no rise of Islamophobia-in-practice, as if these even begin to describe the experience of British Muslims since 9/11.

The contortions required to explain Breivik’s atrocity were worthy of a gold medal. Reducing the massacre to another of ‘today’s various terror tantrums’ O’Neill dismissed links between the killer’s ideology and the growing noise of right-wing extremist discourse and instead claimed that ‘his outlook, like that of the 7/7 attackers, seems to have been moulded by the estrangement-inducing politics of multiculturalism’:

Breivik’s alleged hatred of multiculturalism actually seems to be driven by a belief that it does not sufficiently respect his cultural identity; his violent act can be seen as a crazy, barbaric attempt to expand the remit of the politics of multiculturalism.

In case we might get the wrong idea from this, O’Neill parenthetically added, ‘This is not to argue, by the way, that the EDL or anti-immigration thinkers bear any responsibility for Breivik’s violence. They do not.’ Spiked’s logic is stupidly self-contradictory: Words don’t lead to actions, except that the discourse of multiculturalism leads to fanatical struggles for identity on all sides, except that it doesn’t.

But does this mean that there is a case for somehow limiting ‘hate speech’ because of its potential for violence? This question was posed after the shooting of Arizona Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner in early 2011. Loughner, although probably seriously mentally ill, had apparently been influenced by inflammatory right-wing rhetoric against Giffords, and fingers were soon pointed at advertisements being run by Sarah Palin targeting Democrats (including Giffords) in cartoon crosshairs. In response to the shooting, Barack Obama argued,

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

Similarly, just six months later, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told his people that he would not be pushed into fighting fire with fire when it came to the anti-multicultural Right:

The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation. … We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions that it’s completely legal, legitimate to have. What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence.

But what can be done about these developments except to decry them and call for greater civility? The responses of far Right ideologues in the wake of Utøya suggests they are deaf to such calls. Writing in Newsweek, Asne Seierstad put the question to the founder of a far Right Norwegian website:

[Hans] Rustad, for his part, is dismayed by official Norway’s reaction to the attacks. ‘Meeting terror with roses and love …’ he says, bitingly. ‘Crown Prince Haakon announced that the streets of Oslo were filled with love. What is this? Woodstock? Flower Power? Feel my pain! We go through the same pile of victims’ stories over and over again. How many memorial ceremonies can we handle?’ He knocks his glass of water onto the table, when I mention the debate over what has been described as covert Islamization. ‘It is not even covert!’

This text was originally prepared for the Greek magazine Re-Public. In Part 2 I look at what kind of strategy the Left might use to challenge the rise of far Right.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Josie says:

    Excellent and interesting article. Thanks.

    But I would try to avoid reading too much into the fact that court officials voluntarily shook his hand. I’ve been working in Norway a bit recently and Norwegians are culturally very different from us. (I’m British, but they are probably even more different from you guys). Reserved is an understatement: whatever their feelings towards you their outward behaviour seems to remain identical – polite, quiet, slightly cold, showing absolutely no emotions. That is just what they like – they don’t seem to show their feelings outwardly. I don’t think that you can assume that a Norwegian being prepared to shake someone’s hand means what it would in your country.

    I find them really difficult, because it’s so hard to tell what they are thinking or feeling.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for that information Josie. Hope you like part 2 as well. I figured this custom must be very deeply ingrained, because I don’t think it happens in Australian courts (which are, I suspect, more adversarial in process). It was creepy, however!

  2. [...] the imbroglio over the conflicting forensic psychiatric assessments, as well the observance of courtroom process and niceties, that have taken the heat off the explicitly political nature of his [...]