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Leader: From believing in absurdities to committing atrocities

The most shocking thing about Breivik is how many people agree with his opinions.

How should a free society respond to terror? After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the US and the UK curtailed civil liberties to a degree unprecedented in peacetime, insisting that there was a trade-off to be made between liberty and security. But Norway, where the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 civilians last July, offers a different model. While Tony Blair declared that “the rules of the game have changed” after the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, confronted by an even greater atrocity, insisted that the rules remained the same. After Breivik’s massacre, Stoltenberg promised “more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”. This week, as Breivik’s trial opened in an Oslo courtroom, a short distance from the site of his car bomb attack, his country fulfilled that pledge.

Breivik, the biggest mass murderer in Norway’s recent history, is on trial in the normal way and accorded the same rights as other criminal defendants, including the right to address the court. That he has used this as an opportunity to hold forth on the “Islamisation” of Norway and the evils of immigration has not diminished the country’s commitment to due process. The Norwegian judiciary has made every effort to avoid jeopardising Breivik’s right to a fair trial. A lay judge who posted a comment last year on Facebook calling for Breivik to receive the death penalty was dismissed on the grounds that the statements “may weaken trust in his impartiality”. There have been notably few calls from voters to revise the maximum statutory penalty of 21 years imprisonment (a sentence that can be renewed at five-year intervals) and polls show that just 16 per cent support the reinstatement of capital punishment.

Such liberalism is all the more admirable from a population, which, owing to its small size (five million), was irrevocably scarred by the murders. One in four Norwegians knew, or knew of, one or more of the victims. On a per capita basis, Norway lost twice as many people that day as the US did on 9/11. In his opening remarks to the court, Breivik did not deny responsibility for the deaths of 77 people. Rather, he claimed that this was an act of “self-defence” against the “state traitors” who opened Norway to multiculturalism.

It is convenient for some to dismiss Breivik’s views as the ramblings of a mad narcissist and a psychopath. But strip away his more outlandish rhetoric and there is little to separate them from those frequently expressed on the pages of the conservative press. It was Breivik’s actions, rather than his beliefs, that distinguished him from other right-wing ideologues. His tropes of choice – the rise of “Eurabia”, the insidious influence of “cultural Marxism” – will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of Melanie Phillips or Mark Steyn, two of the writers cited in Breivik’s manifesto. The neoconservative author Norman Podhoretz titled his work on “Eurabia” World War IV. Breivik merely pursued such ideas to their extreme conclusion. As Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.

Even now, supposedly mainstream figures encourage the beliefs that animate fanatics such as Breivik. In France, fighting for re-election as president, Nicolas Sarkozy has run a shamelessly demagogic campaign, indulging anxieties over immigration and the influence of Islam in a desperate attempt to win over the supporters of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. He has argued that there are “too many foreigners” in France and has vowed to ban halal meat from state schools. In Britain, much of the mainstream press continues to treat Muslims as an alien force, fuelling Islamophobia through misinformation and distortion. So long as this remains the case, the rhetoric of those same publications that express horror at Breivik’s behaviour – his fascist salute, his absence of regret – will be seized on by more of his kind. 

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial