As if the initial reports about Anders Breivik’s murderous spree in Oslo and the island of Utoya wasn’t enough to make us sick with grief for those innocents who were gunned down and numb with disbelief that such a thing could ever happen, we are now having the drama replayed in the Norwegian courtroom and it makes for distressing hearing. As we remind ourselves that 77 unaware people, unknown as individuals to Breivik, died, it is chilling to hear of his ‘mental preparations’: the deliberate sublimating of any human empathy about his actions. We hear also, how he strolled through the youth camp picking his targets: shooting those close by with a hand gun, and those further away, and swimming in the lake, with a high-powered rifle. There is speculation whether the organisation he ostensibly collaborates with exists: are there other Breiviks out there secretly bearing arms for the Knights Templar? It is doubtful, but then we didn’t know of the existence of the murderous Anders. Breivik describes his rampage as ‘necessary’, and gives as his justification the fact that the youngsters belonged to the Labour Party, and were therefore sympathisers with the multiculturalist cause that wished to both integrate and honour Islamic and other cultures in European society. He spared one man his life because his appearance made him ‘look right-wing’. Now, all this evidence of a seriously damaged and perverted mind builds up and it must be decided whether Anders Breivik is sane or insane. If sane, he is a dangerous terrorist and calculating assassin-this is how he would like to be judged. If insane, we await a diagnosis of what particular illness afflicts him and whether it can be cured and prevented in others. Breivik does not want this verdict, as it will portray him, not as a heroic crusader for white European culture, but as a sad and deeply flawed human being incapable of rational thought and action. Technically, medically and scientifically the jury is out and agonised decisions are pored over by the experts, but to any ordinary person looking on the cold-hearted violence and twisted political posturing Anders Breivik is the very definition of insanity. If not technically insane as an individual, his actions are undoubtedly insane as they contradict every fibre of a right-thinking person’s ethics, morality and humanity. So why the hold up?
One statement gave me cause to pause and contemplate the case more deeply: ‘no one’ he said, ‘would have asked for a psychiatric examination had he been a bearded jihadist. Because I am a militant nationalist, I am being subjected to racism’. His implications are clear but complex: if he is insane, then so are all the militant Islamic terrorists. If he is not insane, his actions have the same value as those of other terrorists of whatever persuasion. It is the argument of a relativist…it is the mantra of all modern societies struggling with deep differences of culture, race and religious and moral understanding living side by side: we want to be inclusive and honour all and their beliefs and so we say to all: ‘one person’s beliefs are just as true as the next person’s’ and struggle to find that common ground of practice and belief which is so necessary for a society if it is to live together and have a shared code of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behaviour in our modern world. Breivik is the logical end product of the thinking that suggests we are each moral and ethical islands entire unto ourself, deciding for ourselves what principles we will live our lives by. It is equally chilling that some infamous paedophiles have used similar arguments to validate their heinous crimes. In short, Breivik’s actions are justifiable to him because he finds them justifiable, no matter how screwed up the thinking.
In former times, shared values were more or less imposed on a society by the particular faith that took hold there: our own legal code and judgement on what is right and wrong, is almost entirely based on a Christian view of life and creation and what is acceptable behaviour under God. As the hold of the major faiths loses its grip, we will need to find other ways of agreeing that there are certain things, such as the sanctity of human life and the inviolability of a person’s rights, which are to be shared and commonly held values. For myself, I do not see how that process can either eliminate or marginalise the views of the major faith communities for it is they who have the ancient, inherited wisdom about such things and the wherewithal to help these principles take root in our hearts and the shared mind of our society. However, until we are able to be clearer about our shared values we will continue to chip away, slowly and deliberately at our common good and we will continue to produce the twisted thinking of someone like Anders Breivik.