To prove Breivik's sanity, they rolled out the crazies

A deft piece of courtroom theatre in the Breivik trial.

It was one of the weirdest days of the trial so far. They thought they had been given the chance to blow the whole conspiracy wide open. Instead the extreme right-wing obsessives called to testify for the defence in the Anders Breivik trial were exposed to the contempt and bafflement of the ordinary people they typically lionise.

After weeks and weeks of horror, even the survivors of Breivik’s 22 July massacre laughed in the court as the politically marginalised took the stand and relished their moment to finally preach their truth. Each of the unpleasant foursome had their jealous ideological niches – the ever-fractious far-right always will - but each agreed on the existence of a left-wing conspiracy deliberately preventing their popular views from reaching the masses.

In a trial where the only question is over the sanity of a confessed murderer of 77 people, it seems wrong to indulge in reductive pop-psychology. But the temptation is irresistible: in order to prove his sanity, Breivik’s defence had rolled out the crazies.

Ronny Alte, former leader of English Defence League spin-off, the Norwegian Defence League, moaned to a court packed with teenage survivors of a holiday island massacre, how his views means he must fear for his life. Arne Tumyr, chairman of Stop the Islamisation of Norway, complained furiously that the Muslims in his country meant “Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Piglet, is now considered an impure animal.” Tore Tvedt, leader of irrelevant Neo-Nazi organisation, Vigrid, blamed the ever-guilty Jews. Ole Jørgen Arnfindsen, initially adding a sheen of academic authority before descending into unfathomable conspiracy theorising, blamed… It was impossible to know who he blamed.

Each condemned the murders. Yet each still believed they had been called to his defence to legitimise those elements of Breivik’s philosophy where their own obsessions overlapped. They had not. In a deft piece of courtroom theatre, Breivik’s defence counsel, Geir Lippestad, gave them just enough room to show that being a sad, lonely, obsessive may make you a crackpot. But it does not necessarily make you mad.

Each one of these men could have been excused from testifying. A string of witnesses, including Carl I Hagen, the former leader of Norway’s mainstream anti-immigration Progress Party, and Mullah Krekar, Norway’s most notorious Islamic fanatic, were exempted despite originally being on the defence list. Most were able to argue that being called to defend Breivik would put them in an unsafe and morally unbearable position. Lippestad said he had no desire to force them.

Those who did appear were either unfailingly committed to the Norwegian judicial process or saw their appearance as an opportunity to break through the conspiracy and finally be put in front of a receptive public. The fact that they were literally laughed out of court should, but won’t, have dented their belief in a deliberate campaign to ensure their marginalisation.

Breivik complained in his 1,500 page manifesto that he mailed to 8,000 email addresses on the morning before his attacks, that he too had been ignored. He had written twice, we learned, to the influential Oslo daily Aftenposten to complain about its Islam-biased coverage of international affairs. His letters were never published. Hilde Haugsgjerd, the paper’s editor-in-chief said well-written contributions likely to appeal to more than a handful of people were favoured.

Anyone who has struggled through his manifesto, will know Breivik’s missives were deeply unlikely to have met either of these criteria. Yet in some dark corners of the internet, his heartfelt views and pseudo-academic justifications were swallowed and, no doubt, even admired. For the political marginal there is always a constituency and in the shouty internet such constituents can evidently make you feel mainstream.

Arnfindsen is the editor of honestthinking.no, a site aimed at people who don’t realise that websites which evoke truthfulness and honesty should be regarded with the same scepticism as restaurants that testify to their cleanliness. On his site he has hits and acclaim. Shorn of his online echo chamber he and everyone else was shown why he is marginalised. Unable to construct a logical argument, incapable of properly weighing evidence, and flinging out unsubstantiated allegations like a small child playing Cluedo, he like the other nuts who testified to Breivik’s sanity were exposed for what they are.

Breivik wishes to be considered sane. It is galling that these people's testimony could help him to achieve his aim. But there must also be satisfaction in exposing these crackpots as the fairy tale villains they are. Raymond Johansen, general secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party so loathed by Breivik, said it was important their views should be heard. “If a troll comes out into the sunlight it will burst,” he said. “If it remains in the dark it will grow.”

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist reporting from the Breivik trial in Oslo. He tweets as @markantonylewis.

Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik sits on 6 June, 2012 in the courtroom in Oslo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser