Anders Breivik is not a madman

Dismissing the killer simply as "nuts" ignores future threats.

Insanity is not necessarily a prerequisite for mass murder. Although killers such as the Russian cannibal Alexander Spesivtev and the serial killer Dennis Nilsen would reasonably be described as insane, there are some who kill their fellow human beings simply because they passionately believe themselves to be right. Sometimes these people - in the form of some suicide bombers - are brainwashed; but many times they are not, and they act out of a sense of religious or political fundamentalism, or indeed, out of obedience.

More ink than blood has been spilled about the motivations of the killers in the Nazi camp deaths and the Einsatzgruppen, but one observation that consistently emerges is that many of the perpetrators were not mad, and were in fact, in the words of Christopher Browning, 'ordinary men'. I have yet to read a serious thesis that advances the notion that all nineteen of the September 11 hijackers were insane. Although some members of the Provisional IRA were mad, the vast majority were not, and were able to commit mass murder nevertheless.

If you passionately believe you are right, and you feel you have no other method of obtaining your goal, then killing is a very logical thing to do. This is undoubtedly a normative form of human behaviour, as human beings have been killing each other for the "right reasons" for millennia. Many of us are repelled by the act of murder and, thankfully, we do not resort to it even if we believe the other side is wrong. But some do kill others to advance their interests, or to stymie those of others, especially if they believe that a greater threat is posed to society by not carrying out the killings.

Such an attitude was espoused by Heinrich Himmler in his speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, in which he said:

Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when 500 lie there or when 1,000 are lined up. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person [my italics] - with exceptions due to human weaknesses - had made us tough. This is an honour roll in our history which has never been and never will be put in writing, because we know how difficult it would be for us if we will had Jews as secret saboteurs, agitators and rabble rousers in every city, what with the bombings, with the burden and with the hardships of the war. If the Jews were still part of the German nation, we would most likely arrive now at the state we were at in 1916/17 [.] We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who would kill us [my italics].

For the purposes of the present argument, the key phrases in this passage are Himmler's assertions that it is possible to commit mass murder and to still be "decent" (in German, anständig, which also denotes respectability) and that there was a 'moral right' to carry out mass murder. Although Himmler was plainly wrong - the Jews did not present an eliminationist threat to German society - it is clear that the justification Himmler used to urge others to commit massacres was not born out of madness, but from a position of political fundamentalism and perceived preemptive self-defence.

Many members of the Nazi leadership were not insane and yet they appeared to be anständig. At the risk of sounding flippant, their attitude was one of "What happens in Auschwitz, stays in Auschwitz". Such a process, by which ordinary men are able to commit extraordinarily vile acts, has been labelled as 'doubling' by the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Lifton's argument is that human beings, when placed in certain situations, need to be neither mad nor bad to commit acts that normally require a combinaton of just such attributes. Undoubtedly, it is the nature of those 'certain situations' that is crucial. It is easier to commit mass murder when there is a corporate intent to do so, and much harder to do so when acting alone.

What makes the case of Anders Breivik so troubling is that he committed mass murder on his own. For some commentators, such as Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, Sam Leith in the Evening Standard, and Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph, Breivik's actions are explained by insanity, and there is not much need to study Breivik's 'manifesto'. This, the argument runs, was the work of a lunatic who had built a puerile ideology to accommodate his psychopathy. In essence - the madness comes first, then the political justification, then the slaughter.

However, it is quite clear, at least to me, and Professor Andrew Silke on yeterday's Today programme, that Anders Breivik is not a madman. If you study Breivik's 2083 A European Declaration of Independence, it becomes apparent that Breivik is not insane. His thought processes are clear and rational. He appears to reasonably well socialised, and in control of his faculties. He even displays a sense of morality. His political arguments, although deeply wrong, are no more wrong-headed than many you might find in the comments boxes on the websites of many a newspaper, and, if anything, are far more sophisticated. Breivik comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful person, albeit obsessional with what he perceives to be the eliminationist threat of multiculturalism to Norwegian - and European - society. None of these attributes make him insane, and certainly not mad enough to be the psycho figure posited by Sam Leith and Boris Johnson.

The roots of Breivik's actions clearly lie in his politics, and when you read his 'manifesto', it is clear why he decided to act as he did. His argument runs thus: Multiculturalism, 'cultural Marxism' and immigration of Muslims is destroying our way of life. The people responsible for this are the ruling Labour Party. These people are traitors. I have tried to act politically, but that has yielded no reward, and little hope of doing so. Violence is the only solution. Therefore, kill the next generation of political Labour Party leaders. This is a necessary evil, but will save us from the greater murderousness of Islam in the long run.

And, in a brutally logical way, that is just what Breivik did. Those who he slaughtered, such as Hanne Kristine Fridtun and Tore Eikeland, were indeed future political luminaries, people who Breivik felt were traitors and would lead his country into the supposed darkness of Islamic domination. In his 'manifesto' Breivik suggests that his '"Justiciar Knights" would need to kill some 200,000 "category A and B traitors" in order to "break the historical 'Marxist vs. Conservative' cycle or we risk that the cultural Marxists will emerge as a dominating force again after 20-100 years". Breivik's thinking is, of course, twisted and evil. But it is not mad, and he is not unique.

Thanks to social media, Breivik was able to connect quickly - by his own reckoning - with thousands of likeminded souls on Facebook. Much of his 'manifesto' deals with building and maintaining such networks, and, of course, there is the suggestion that he met specific inviduals in London with similar intentions to his own. In this way, Breivik was able to feel that he was participating in a corporate enterprise, and, when combined with his political will, to have created a 'Lifton situation' in which murder became morally justifiable.

History shows us too often that the actions of certain individuals can - at the right or wrong moment - create vast consequences for society. The Norwegians are completely correct to insist that their ship of state should not deviate from its course. But we must learn how to stop future politically motivated massacres, and to do so, we cannot just dismiss Breivik as a madman and sail on blithely. Breivik's actions are not rooted in mental imbalance but in political belief, and we must study and negate his beliefs - and those who adhere to them - to stop future slaughters.

Show Hide image

Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage