‘I’m a very likeable person’: Breivik’s modern fascist media strategy

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.

Various media outlets have engaged in hand-wringing and debate over how to report the trial. The Washington Post outlined the problem:

“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.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. One point worth making is that there’s very little difference between Breivik’s analysis and that of quite mainstream Islamophobic parties. Pretty much everything he says might have been mouthed by Le Pen for instance.
    The main current of Islamophobia distances itself from Breivik largely on the basis that his acts, rather than his ideas, are horrific, that no normal person could shoot kids, and therefore there’s no connection between a terrorist like Breivik and, say, the anti-Islam bloggers who spend all their days fapping about cultural Marxists and the rest of it.
    But Breivik responded explicitly to this argument, the claim that his terrorist acts showed his abnormality.
    He said that he recognised the massacre would be psychologically hard to perform — and that’s why he set out to train himself to kill. He wasn’t some thrill killer who got his rocks off by firing guns. On the contrary, his act began from the political analysis widely shared on the Islamophobic right — the conviction that a war is or soon will be raging against Muslims. Because he accepted the necessity for war, he forced himself to become a warrior.
    That’s why the politics matters. There’s nothing Breivik did that others who believe the same ideas couldn’t do. And, as we’ve just seen in France, those ideas are becoming very mainstream.

  2. Yes Jeff. Proof in point being the comments of the conservative leader on the Four Corners program last night. He noted, without flinching, that large sections of Breivik’s manifesto are excerpts from mainstream commentators of the Right.

  3. A friend has sent a very interesting translation from a study in one of the Norwegian papers:

    this from the frontpage of today’s Klassekampen, one of our two major left newspapers.
    I have taken the liberty of translating it for you.

    The Headline Reads Grouchy Old Men (it is the title Norway gives to these Walter Matteu old men movies)

    and then it opens with this:

    “The average reader of Islam hostile web sites is a man over 65 years, without children and with little education.
    – The typical profile of the conspiracy theorists are elderly, lonely men, who becomes obsessed with a particular question, and who may be attracted to Islam hostile conspiracy theories, says Andreas Malm, journalist and author of the book “The hatred against Muslims,” ​​when he is presented with statistics .

    Klassekampen has used the analysis tool Alexa to crawl the website Islam hostile Gates of Vienna, Jihad Watch, The Brussels Journal, Islam Watch, Atlas Shrugged, Tundra Tabloid, Vladtepesblog and The Green Arrow. These are pages that have inspired Anders Breivik Behring and his manifesto.

    Statistics show a clear pattern of reading groups for the eight sites examined:

    * The age group 65 and older is over-represented at all sites.

    * Men are clearly overrepresented.

    * Few have taken higher education beyond primary level.

    * Few have children.

    * People who visit the site are surfing from home – not from work or school.

    Fear and mistrust

    Andreas Malm says the statistics correspond well with select groups of extreme right parties in Europe.

    – There is a preponderance of older men, often unemployed, who may feel ostracized from society, and seeking an explanation and a scapegoat, he said.

    – This may correspond with the social profile of the statistics, even though I have NOT YET studied the statistics.

    Tor Bach, editor of the magazine VEPSEN, is not surprised by the numbers.

    – I am not surprised that the older PERSONS dominaTE. In many of the Islam hostile organizations, there are many middle-aged people, he said.

    Bach points out several common characteristics for this group.

    – Firstly, they are characterized by a vote of no confidence against the entire society and the democratic system. Second, they sincerely believe that someone will harm them.

    – What is typical of those who read, write and comment on these pages?

    – Now, one should not generalize too much, but mainly it is angry and frustrated people. When their views are not heard, they feel gagged, says Bach.

    Belief in Eurabia

    A red line for the ten sites is the conspiracy theory of Eurabia – an alleged conspiracy in which Europe is about to be subjected to Islam and Sharia law, and where immigration and high birth rates are a deliberate part of an Islamic colonization.

    Bach believes this theory appeals to the elderly.

    – These people believe in all seriousness that there is a conspiracy that the Arab world to take over the European, he said”

  4. Look how easily the “humanity” of having him psychiatrically assessed is twisted by Breivik into his usual message:

    If I had been a bearded jihadist, there would not have been a forensic psychiatric report at all,” he said. ”But since I am a militant nationalist, I am subjected to gross racism. They are trying to delegitimise everything I stand for.’

  5. I support the limited open trial of Breivik because it clearly and publicly demonstrates his soundness of mind and the explicit political motivations of his actions. It is true that the media exposure given to Breivik may embolden extremists but I suspect most observers would not only be surprised and appalled by the extent of his planning and the manufactured callousness of his acts, but will also be alerted to the existence of groups and individuals sympathetic to Breivik and his ideology, some of whom are in our midst.

    A case in point is the Twitter exchange this week between Paul Howes and @ross_at_home who endorsed Breivik’s action by expressing disappointment that similar violence had not befallen Howes, his wife and others who have attended ALP gatherings. @ross_at_home has outed himself and, hopefully, Howes has reported him to the police.

    1. Yes, I think that’s absolutely right.

      The problem is definitely not along the axis of whether to censor or not censor but how the media is framing what is being said — too often depoliticising it.

      You can see it in the BBC doco that ran on Four Corners the other night, where the politics was downplayed and there was a lot of focus on the police procedural failures and looking for some key psychological trauma in Breivik’s past. It was a powerful film but didn’t illuminate the background to the horror enough.

  6. Interesting discussion. Im a american, but I live in Norway. I think one thing that its important to keep in mind, is how greatly different Norwegian culture is from that of western Europe and the US. There really isnt much at all of a de-politicizng of Breivik’s crimes going on…in fact its a daily talking point in Norwegian media. Now, the analysis may be less than what one would like, but all the same, I think there are many commentators discussing the far right and Breivik’s shared DNA with everyone from lePen to Pym’s former party, to Austrian far right parties to skin heads and US hate groups. What he has borrowed is expressed through a cloudy and confused lens of Christian crusader mythology, and Germanic master race tropes. But the point is really that Norwegians place a great deal of importance on public civility, on resisting authoritarian responses and on equanimity. Its a significant difference from the US — you really have to be here a while to fully appreciate it, in fact. That said, there is another factor. Norway is a country of only 5 million people. Oslo is around 750,000…by far the biggest city. Everyone and I mean everyone has at least a second degree connection to what happened on utoya island. Its a very VERY small country, the northern most in Europe, and its culture is experienced as intimate and personal. You can walk up to the kings palace (which resembles a dental clinic) and ask to talk with him. You can phone the ministers and talk….everyone’s phone number is listed in Norway. The feeling here about the Breivik slaughter is experienced first as personal…someone’s cousin was killed, someone’s friends’ cousin at least. Los Angeles….ten million, London the same, New York, Berlin, etc. They all have more people than this tiny remote country on the fringe of Europe. Its not Denmark, its not even Sweden. Culturally, its very provincial, very linked to the morality of northern protestantism. My point finally is this, norwegians know the political implications and I think it scares them. But I dont see any white washing of this, I see a very different public culture and media culture.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It struck me right from the start that in Norway the politicisation around this would be more fully developed than elsewhere. There were youth members of the Labour Party who came to our Labor Party’s conference last year who clearly defined Breivik in political terms that I would use.

      The thing that interests me is why the psychiatrists assessed him as insane, and why even the Norwegian media spent a lot of time focusing on his personality. It struck me that the state and media elites might be reacting quite differently to the general population, and why that would be. I have tried to pay some attention to the Norwegian media during the last 9 months (with the “help” of Google Translate) and there seems to be a lot of stuff there which is very much around legal process, police investigations, etc.

      Of course I’m not living there and so I won’t have caught the “vibe”, but that “depoliticisation-from-above” does seem to be an element that my Norwegian contacts have noted. My criticisms in the article are very much of the elite view of what is happening (especially in the mainstream media), rather than conversations on the ground, so to speak.

  7. Yeah, I dont disagree at all. The thing is; the focus on personality is partly just the woeful state of modern psychiatry, which as a default setting de-politicizes everything. Thats a whole separate but important topic. The other factor is that norwegian police are utterly unprepared for the increasing crime and immigration — i spoke with a woman, Norwegian, who works for Interpol….and she said this exactly. She said Norwegians have lived in great comfort and cut off from the troubles of continental Europe….and they simply are frightened at things getting quickly out of control….which well they might. The rise of the fascist right, the human traffickers, the drugs etc, Norway has a very very long unprotected coastline. Now…also, Breivik’s real father was a liberal — labor party guy….his step dad, who he liked much better, was FRP…the right wing anti immigration party (who are scrambling to distance themselves from Breivik)…..so its hard to deny the links. Also…those kids killed were with the leftist parties (such as they are)….and that is specifically who he targeted. Earlier that week, if not day, they had led a protest in support of Palestinian rights. This is a huge topic here. As is Norway’s inclusion in NATO. So, again, i think my point was that norwegian culture is very private…public discourse happens in different ways from France or Germany or Spain. And, Norway is a very rich country. They suffer a degree of guilt about that , in my opinion.

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