By his own admission, Anders Breivik’s act of mass assassination was politically motivated and designed to ignite a revolution in which a lengthy war would be waged against Muslims in Europe. Breivik’s motives have been outlined in a 1500 page manifesto containing a farrago of political and historical influences laced with thematic resentments and prejudices. In a YouTube video Breivik condenses his fragmentary thesis into bite-sized pieces. In essence, he appears to have been motivated by two parallel hatreds: Muslims and Marxists. Despite identifying himself as Christian, Breivik seems more interested in using religion as a political weapon than as a matter of faith.
His target of choice was the emerging generation of the progressive arm of the Norwegian political establishment. In a carefully orchestrated act of terrorism, Breivik hunted and shot attendees at a youth camp sponsored by the governing Norwegian Labour Party. It is significant that between 1983 and 1985 the incumbent social democrat Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, was himself the leader of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF), the youth group targeted by Breivik. It appears that Breivik’s assault was grounded in a political strategy designed to punish the Norwegian government for its immigration and multicultural policies. In a classic act of incendiary violence and politically motivated extremism Breivik killed people whose ideas he disagreed with. Breivik refers to these ideas under the rubric of ‘cultural Marxism’.
An equivalent act of terrorism in Australia might be the bombing of the ALP and/or Greens headquarters followed by the systematic gunning down of 68 young people attending a rally in support of refugees.
The Breivik action resulted in responses from right-wing commentators around the world quick to attribute the act to Islamic extremism. Andrew Bolt was the most prominent local example of foot-in-mouth syndrome. The political debate around the incident escalated when the ABC reported that Breivik’s manifesto contained references to the writings and speeches of a number of prominent Australians, among them former Prime Minister John Howard, Catholic Cardinal George Pell, Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle and former Liberal Party MP Ross Cameron.
Australian commentators on the Left argued that the references were evidence of the relationship between the political agenda and rhetoric of the Right and the rising tide of Islamophobia in western nations, an aspect of the debate that currently clusters around the war in Afghanistan, the legacy of Iraq and the treatment of refugees and has, in the past, manifested locally in violent clashes, most notably the Cronulla riots in 2005.
The inclusion of the references in the Breivik manifesto cannot be construed as explicit endorsement by their authors of his bespoke ideology any more than the writing of George Orwell, whom Breivik attributes as an influence, could be. Nevertheless, commentators on the Right responded to such accusations by arguing that elements on the Left were guilty of using the Breivik incident to suppress free speech. By linking the Australian references in Breivik’s manifesto to his violent actions, they argued, the Left was attempting to silence criticism of its political agenda on refugees, multiculturalism and the broader issue of anti-Muslim prejudice. Some went further by suggesting that the Left was using the deaths in Norway for political leverage. The debate was played out in Crikey and on The Drum website where Overland editor Jeff Sparrow and Left Flank’s Tad Tietze were countered by rightist historian and commentator Merv Bendle. Windschuttle weighed in with an opinion piece in The Australian. The comment threads for all these posts contained hundreds of heated responses directed at each writer. What the comments culled by the moderator contained was no doubt much worse. Bendle wrote a follow up piece pre-empting a possible defamation suit against the ABC.
In the kind of rhetorical overreach typical of the more sensationalist elements on the Right, Bendle manages a Glen Beck moment by suggesting, somewhat counterintuitively, in a 9/11 conspiracy manner, that Breivik may have been a patsy in a ‘false-flag’ operation, carried out to give just this impression that it was conducted by anti-Muslim, right-wing extremists, but actually conceived and directed by other forces. Beck went so far as to claim that the youth camp on Utoya Island resembled members of the Nazi Youth League. Unfortunately and inaccurately, sections of the Right, Bendle included, persist in equating the ideas and sympathies of the Left with those of Islamic extremism as if to support the democratic revolution in Egypt were to sign up for the Taliban. It is a convenient conflation of the type commonly used by red baiters during the McCarthy years in the US.
This understandably heated debate is taking place within a wider and more complex political context. Commentators on the Right continue to attack the legitimacy of the Gillard government despite it being a properly constituted one which, in contrast to the widespread rhetoric claiming it is dysfunctional, has, like it or not, successfully worked through its legislative agenda. At the conclusion of the last sitting of Parliament every bill that had come before the House of Representatives had been passed. This amounts to more than 150 pieces of legislation, hardly the track record of a government unable to function. Strident accusations of illegitimacy are baseless and useless.
Since becoming Coalition leader, Tony Abbott has successfully prosecuted a case against the government based on a blanket opposition to its policy on carbon tax and refugees. He has combined this strategy with attacks on the influence of the Greens in government (they hold one seat in the House of Reps) and an assault on the character of Prime Minister Gillard. If the polls are any indication, Abbott has been doing his job well despite having advanced no substantive policy ideas other than the repeal of the carbon tax and the proposed mining tax and, oh yes, a parental leave scheme many in his own party believe is overly generous. His proposal for direct action on climate change has received scant support from either economists or scientists but is tacitly backed by the mining lobby and some elements of the business community precisely because it is incoherent and unlikely to be successfully implemented.
Abbott is using the carbon tax as a political baseball bat and has no genuine concern for either the scientific or economic consequences. Furthermore, Abbott has courted the support of the angry elements of that fragmentary element of the electorate with a decidedly racist rump opposed to immigration and especially to refugees. Abbott has succeeded in recruiting the remnants of One Nation and its more extreme fellow travellers to the anti-carbon tax ‘revolution’ and some of these people are undoubtedly predisposed to violence. At a recent rally one member of the audience asked Joe Hockey whether the time was ripe to take up arms against the government. In the television coverage I saw Hockey responded rather weakly that although he understood the man’s anger, ‘we should never do that’. The problem with that response is that it is the anger itself that can result in the action, as Breivik has proven. Instead of playing to that anger politicians and the media should seek to quell it by privileging reasoned, factual debate over sensationalism.
That is unlikely to happen when Alan Jones is out there suggesting that the Prime Minister should be put in a bag and dropped in the sea. To date Jones has not been called to account by media regulators for this comment. In an extraordinary moment on Q&A, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz was asked if he thought Jones’ comment was a bridge too far. He replied that it was a ‘figure of speech’ and refused to unequivocally condemn the remarks. But politicians and the media should be accountable for their use of language. Consider the case of Sarah Palin whose ‘cross-hairs’ campaign against ‘liberals’ was rightly linked to the assassination attempt against an American politician. The words and actions of opinion leaders can indeed serve as sanctions for those who harbour deep and possibly irrational resentments. Calls for the Prime Minister to be bagged and drowned push the boundaries of free speech in the public domain.
The controversy surrounding the Murdoch media in the UK, followed by calls for a media inquiry in Australia, has also had an impact on the tone of debate. The federal government has been accused of trying to gag the media at the behest of the Greens and acting in retribution against its detractors in News Ltd which, by any objective measure, has waged a sustained campaign in tacit support of the Abbott agenda. The combined effort of The Telegraph, The Australian and the radio shock jocks to unseat the Gillard government is indisputable. Policy failure by any government should be rigorously held to account. But it should be done on the basis of reasoned, measured debate and a careful analysis of the facts. Clearly, the tabloid media’s business model tends to make it a fact-free zone and a mouthpiece for often hysterical, ill-informed and even dangerous ideas. Appeals to base instincts of revenge and retribution do not go unheard.
One thing is clear: Anders Breivik acted in an entirely coherent manner. He wrote a lengthy manifesto detailing his political philosophy; he planned the act over a long period of time (the full extent of the detail will no doubt emerge during his trial); he developed a public relations strategy to disseminate his ideas and staged a tactical surrender seemingly to avail himself of sustained media attention and notoriety, as a kind of living legend; he is alleged to have built and detonated a massive car bomb in the centre of Oslo and used it as a decoy to enable him to carry out the primary tactical strike on Utoya Island masquerading as a uniformed police officer. Medical assessments aside, these are not the actions of a person that can be neatly labelled as out of control in the psychological sense. They are the actions of someone in full possession of the faculty of reason but lacking moral compass and human empathy. Anders acted to spark an uprising among like-minded people in Europe and elsewhere. People who for a variety of reasons resent the presence of immigrants, especially Muslims, in their midst. People who perhaps fail to recognise the historical, economic and political reasons behind the presence of immigrants and refugees in their countries. Reasons like cheap labour. Reasons like wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, across Africa. Reasons like compassion and human dignity.
The political debate in Australia has now reached a critical stage. The speed and reach of communication enabled by social media technology means the chatter is perpetual and ubiquitous. Words can be converted to action as Breivik has shown. Political, business and community leaders as well as mainstream media commentators and bloggers have a civic responsibility to prevent vigorous debate from becoming a torrent of hate.