I am having trouble expelling the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, from my mind. Ever since it emerged that Islamist extremism was not the bogeyman behind Norway’s day of murder, it has been difficult to agree on a language or way of thinking about the attacks.
The diffidence and confusion, in the middle of Norway’s extreme grief, has been understandable. Breivik’s 25th July court appearance briefly posed the dilemma about whether he should be allowed to appear in his made-up knight’s uniform and to articulate his psychopathic views. Partly on the basis of security, partly because he clearly craves nothing other than a platform, the Norwegian authorities quite sensibly decided to keep a lid on Breivik. He arrived at the court out of sight. The only picture we got of him was as he was driven away, smiling his placid smile.
My instinct says this is wrong. People will find out—in some incomplete form, anyway—what is in Breivik’s mind. He has posted a 1500-page confessional manifesto on the internet and has a 12-minute video of martial images and right-wing nonsense running nonstop on YouTube. People are curious as well. By killing 76 people on a Friday afternoon in one of the world’s safest and most prosperous countries, Breivik, however unfairly, has got our attention. We should use this moment to interrogate his thinking, despite our reluctance to admit that his actions might have had any basis in a rational mind.
When his lawyer Geir Lippestad told us that Breivik was insane, it was noticeable how gratefully the newspapers and the radio stations grabbed this information. It added another phrase to the language that we had already started to use to distance ourselves from him: lone gunman, secret life, delusional, cold.
I am struck by what seems to me to be the difference between how we are approaching the problem of Breivik and how we have attempted to understand attacks by Europe’s more accustomed nemesis, Islamist extremism. Let’s say that the attacks had been perpetrated by a cell of young, fanatical Pakistani immigrants to Norway. They had done the usual things: made their confessional video in front of a scary banner covered in Arabic phrases in a flat on the…