Anders Breivik arriving in the courtroom in May. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The grotesque manipulations of Anders Breivik

Åsne Seierstad questions a system that gives Anders Breivik publicity.

On 24 August, the verdict against Anders Behring Breivik will be pronounced at Oslo District Court. He has acknowledged having murdered 77 people and destroyed government buildings in Oslo last July but does not accept that he is guilty of any crime. This past week, others got the blame for not stopping his acts, including the man Breivik wanted to crush.

The perpetrator of the bombing and massacre was relegated to a minor role this month in Oslo. The words “blame” and “guilt” were frequently employed but this time not aimed at Breivik. The 22 July commission, an independent inquiry, has delivered its report to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and, with it, devastating conclusions. The attack on Stoltenberg’s offices in the government area could have been prevented, its report claims, if measures already approved had been implemented. The authorities failed to protect the people who were massacred at a Labour Party youth camp on Utøya. Quicker police action was feasible and Breivik could have been stopped much earlier.

The report describes an almost total collapse in the planning and execution of the police action. Co-ordination failed totally and fatally: no nationwide alert, no roadblocks or observation posts set up, no attempt made to mobilise helicopters. The police work was worthy of a “failed state”, not the smoothly organised country we thought we lived in, the commentator Anders Giæver wrote.

The commission’s presentation included almost unbearably sad details, such as the witness who had seen Breivik leaving the bomb area with a gun in his hand. The witness called in the correct number of Breivik’s licence plates only ten minutes after the bombing. The operator wrote the message on a yellow Post-it note and it was given to the co-ordinator, but then left on a desk while Breivik drove out of town. For a long stretch of road he had a police car driving right behind him, suspecting nothing, as the message hadn’t been relayed further. Had he been stopped then, the whole massacre on Utøya could have been prevented.

The failures are numerous: the first policemen to arrive at the lakeside, 600 metres from Utøya island, never attempted to get a boat across to try to stop the killer, even though instructions said they should. The special police sent from Oslo passed them and drove three kilometres further due to a misunderstanding about the agreed meeting place, where they overloaded their dinghy so heavily that it almost sank and civilian boats had to come to their rescue. That was a good thing, as the police, for a while, had been heading to the wrong island.

Breivik killed on average one person every minute. So many lives could have been spared if the police work had been more efficient. Who is to blame? Whose head should roll? Who is to carry the burden of guilt?

Breivik must be rejoicing in his cell, where he has access to all the major Norwegian papers. The main headline in the tabloid newspaper VG after the inquiry made its presentation sent a not-so-subtle message to the prime minister: “Stoltenberg should go”. Breivik’s stated goal is to “crush the Labour Party”. Now the prime minister, who previously was hailed for his leadership after the attacks, is under sharp criticism for the lack of national security measures. Stoltenberg was praised when he spoke, soon after the massacre, of meeting the horror with more “openness, more humanity, but never naivety”. That last word has returned to haunt him. Because we weren’t prepared.

Notice me

So, how do we handle the man who is truly guilty? Are we prepared to punish the culprit in keeping with the standards of his crime?

Up till now, the killer has got everything he could wish for. The former high-school dropout – the nobody – became a somebody. The one who “was always there” but whom most people never remembered, has at last been noticed. Breivik has achieved worldwide notoriety. For the first time in his life he is undoubtedly uppermost in his father’s mind; the father who cut contact with him when he was 15.

To take the psychoanalytic approach: Anders grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who could oscillate between sweet talk and screaming her hatred for her son in a split second. But Anders quickly learned how to manipulate her and as the years passed the motherson power balance shifted in his favour. He later played these tricks skilfully on his captors, on the police and on the judges in court.

When finally the police captured him – three minutes after they arrived on the island, but having spent about an hour to get there – the first thing he said to the policeman sitting on top of him was: The quicker we can start the questioning, the sooner we can start negotiating. If you want to save 300 lives, you should listen to me carefully.

This negotiating tactic produced, among other things, access to a personal computer and a printer. During the trial his negotiations with the judge, Wenche Elisabeth Arntzen, showed similarities to those of a little boy with his mother. When Arntzen tried to cut the reading of his opening speech, which was filled with anti-Islamic rhetoric, he said: If you don’t let me read my full manuscript, I won’t talk at all. She gave in on the first day of the trial, and let him continue until he was through.

Now, in prison, waiting for his judgment, nothing prevents him from continuing to spread his message, freshly written every week on his cherished computer, then printed out and mailed to his followers. According to his lawyer, Breivik spends between eight and ten hours a day working. When the trial was over, at the end of June, he finally found time to sit down to read the 600 letters he had received from around the world, most of them from right-wing extremists in Germany, Sweden, Britain and Russia. VG got hold of two letters that Breivik recently sent; they were exact copies of each other; only the names differed.

In the letters, Breivik explained how he plans to keep fighting against the values of Norwegian society. Those same values that gave him a fair trial, lax treatment in prison and even the right to keep spreading his message. He writes in the letters that he plans three books: the first about the attack, the second about his ideology and the third about the future.

He is also forming a think tank named “Conservative Revolutionary Movement” and in a letter to a Russian follower he writes: “My goal is to develop a pan-European prison network consisting of European, patriotic martyrs and other politically motivated prisoners.” As he explained in his manifesto before the terror act, a trial is the best way to spread his message and so, up to now, everything has been going to plan.

As long as he or she doesn’t promote anything criminal, a prisoner in Norway has freedom of speech and the right to communicate with the outside world. All prisoners in Norway remain eligible to vote in elections. Breivik is careful in his letters not to advocate violence. But his very signature on a letter concerning a “conservative revolutionary movement” could be seen as an instigation to violence. He has often repeated that his mission is not over and, when asked in court whether he regrets his actions, has answered bluntly, “The only thing I regret is that I didn’t kill more people.”

His ten-week trial became a seminar of psychiatrists. In court, out of court, in the media, at conferences, the psychiatrists were quarrelling about differing diagnoses of mental illness that could be made on the mass murderer. All his apparent symptoms were analysed carefully by the forensic psychiatrists and the two teams appointed by the court came to opposite conclusions. The first team was convinced Breivik had been suffering from psychosis during his killing spree and thus can’t be punished according to Norwegian law. The second team concluded that he had been sane and can be punished for his crime. In Norway, putting a sick person in prison is considered a worse crime than treating a sane person on a psychiatric ward. This is one reason court psychiatrists wield greater power than their colleagues do in courtrooms in other countries.

Our system also dictates that, once a mentally ill person has been treated and declared sane, he must be allowed to go free. In most other countries he would then have to face the punishment for his crime. Curiously, in this case, neither health professionals at the prison nor any of the members of the observation team put together by the second couple of court psychiatrists has found any sign of psychotic behaviour. Synne Sørheim, from the first team of court psychiatrists, said during the trial that she is a “treatment optimist” and would treat Breivik with medication and conversation. It is hard to see what she will treat. His right-wing extremist ideas? His violent behaviour? His sense of being at war with social democracy and multiculturalism, evoking the “principle of necessity”?

One thing is clear, however – whatever the judgment is, Breivik will stay in the same topsecurity prison outside Oslo, in the three cells furnished for him. Should he be found insane, the health professionals will treat him inside the prison, a departure from the normal procedure of moving the patient to a hospital.

Breivik’s joint cells were recently classified by his lawyers as one sleeping cell; one “working cell”, with a writing desk, computer and printer; and one “fitness cell” with a treadmill. Breivik has said that he wants to study political science in prison and he has asked his followers to send him books and articles criticising the multicultural society and to enclose stamps. He has also asked for help from local rightwing bloggers willing to work with him. His computer is – unfortunately for him – offline but he doesn’t need his own blog: he can write letters, and others can post them on the web.
This past week, an anonymous letter from one of Breivik’s followers was sent to Norwegian newsrooms, signed by the “second cell of Breivik” acting under his influence.

Breivik has planned this well, his rise to fame from an early bleak life. He corrected “unemployed” to “writer” when asked for his status the first day in court. And this writer is certainly in a unique situation. What other terrorist in the world can sit in his cell and freely spread his propaganda, facilitated by the prison’s own equipment?

There is one thing that Breivik fears: that he will be judged insane. This would take away his aura of being an ideologue, a political prisoner. He would then just be a nobody again. Most of the surviving victims see the harshest punishment for him as isolation. They hope that someone will take away his computer, restrict his letter-writing and leave him alone in his cell with his thoughts and his guilt.

Åsne Seierstad is writing a book about the events of 22 July 2011 in Norway, to be published next autumn.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

Show Hide image

The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.


The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.


In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at:

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt