Based on his own criteria, the response of Western political and media establishments to Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 people last July has played out much better than he could have hoped. I have already written and spoken about the imbroglio over the conflicting forensic psychiatric assessments, as well the observance of courtroom process and niceties, that have taken the heat off the explicitly political nature of his crimes.
While there has been much praise for Norway’s open and ‘humane’ legal process, only a few voices have registered how differently alleged Islamist terrorists were treated in the past. Scrupulously observing the rights of a white, far-Right ‘cultural conservative’ Norwegian doesn’t exactly make up for a decade of the erosion of legal rights and targeting of Muslim minorities in the War on Terror (with Norway participating in the occupation of Afghanistan and toughening its domestic terror laws). It’s hard to miss the irony in Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spin-doctor during the litany of state lies about Afghanistan and Iraq, waxing lyrical about Norway’s ‘calm’ approach to the trial.
“The trial has already given the perpetrator all he dreamed of,” Norwegian reporter Aasne Seierstad wrote before trial. “Everything seems to be ticking nicely along according to his plan: a stage, a pulpit, a spellbound, notebook-clutching, pencil-wielding audience.”
“The dilemma is obvious,” she wrote in an op-ed article published by Newsweek and the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. “Do we increase his importance in this way, subsidizing him, even, to the tune of $2 million a week? Are we puppets on a string, or are we doing what’s right and necessary?”
In light of such concerns, several Norwegian papers have removed trial news from their front pages and the website of one, Dagbladet, now has a ‘Breivik opt-out’ button. There has been extensive discussion about the ethics of live tweeting. However, much of the media’s dilemma stems from incomprehension of Breivik’s strategy. This consists of admitting to his horrific acts claiming they were carried out by someone whose convictions – about a war being waged on Europe via policies of feminism, multiculturalism and Islamisation – amount to a legal defence of ‘necessity’. In a section of his Manifesto titled ‘Using the court proceedings as a platform to further our cause’, he sets out the approach:
The goal for the European resistance fighter is not to win the trial but to present all available evidence, presented in this compendium, and his cause in the most favourable way in order to help generate a maximum amount of sympathisers and supporters for the national and/or European patriotic resistance movement. (p. 1104)
He tells potential new militants, ‘Your participation in the trial is merely a formality and a Justiciar Knight expects no mercy/leniency whatsoever, as we offer no mercy/leniency to our enemies.’ Thus, the selection of a lawyer requires choosing one who is willing to ‘facilitate’ their client ‘logistically’, ‘ideologically’, and ‘to build a case against the regime’. (p. 111–12) While Geir Lippestad, Breivik’s lawyer, is a social democrat, it seems he’s been willing to go along with these expectations in the name of providing the best defence.
The ‘testimony’ – really a ‘talking book’ edition of his Manifesto – is intended to produce different effects in different audiences. Any attempt to argue that broadcasting his words will produce some general racist ‘contagion effect’ misunderstands how fascists use terror and propaganda. Similarly, simply transmitting his words will not automatically lead people to reject them because they seem so extreme and far-fetched. Breivik again:
It might sound completely ridiculous and funny to most people today. But by presenting the following accusations and demands in all seriousness we are indirectly conditioning everyone listening for the conflicts and scenarios ahead. They will laugh today, but in the back of their minds, they have an ounce of fear, respect and admiration for our cause and the alternative and authority we represent. Because they know that it is not completely unlikely that the scenario you just described will in fact happen one day in a not too distant future. (pp. 1103–4)
He sees this as ‘psychological warfare’, ‘indirectly preparing not only our enemies but our people for what lies ahead’. Fascists typically rely on instilling fear in their enemies (the Left and oppressed groups) but in the process emboldening their existing and potential supporters. Thus, part of Breivik’s task is to accustom a hardcore of sympathisers to the use of devastating force as a necessary part of the struggle.
For a wider racist constituency, Brevik’s justifications for mass murder and nauseating claims that ‘I am a very likeable person under normal conditions’ are likely to have a more complex effect. They will convince a small minority to follow his example while disturbing many others. However, the latter group will not necessarily break with racist beliefs, more likely to be drawn to the ‘respectable’ hard Right and its mainstream apologists as they simultaneously condemn violence and seek new ideological opportunities. By providing non-explanations of the reach of racist ideas like, ‘Alienated by a changing society, some people single out Norway’s increasing Muslim minority’, mainstream journalists legitimise this Islamophobia.
This is why media attempts to rebut Breivik’s arguments or point to the apparent incoherence of his ideas will not work. Breivik is not interested in having a rational political debate and indeed believes that democracy will need to be suspended ‘until we have had the opportunity to implement at least some of our principles’. (p. 1354)
The alternative is to politically expose Breivik as a fascist, within a project of building an anti-fascist and anti-racist current outside elite institutions like the state, its legal system and the mainstream media. This is particularly so because those institutions have been complicit in racist and nationalist policies and discourses that Breivik now claims were not radical enough. There is definitely a place for putting such arguments through official media outlets, but in the end fascism can only be effectively combated by mobilizing ordinary people – not just against fascists but against the exploitative social relations in which they breed.