Tuesday, 26 July 2011


Even as we cry 'monster' we recognise that Anders Behring Breivik, the man who bombed Oslo (59 degrees North, 10 degrees East) and shot up Utoya Island (60 degrees North, 10 degrees East), is not at all monstrous. His actions are evil and deadly. His essence is thoroughly human. His capacities for murder and rationalisation are common to the species. He is  homo interimo, the killer, as homo sapiens as anyone. And that's the challenge.

In his view the mass killing of young people is a positive act, a necessary revolutionary act that will produce social change. Perversely he didn't kill his direct enemies, members of the immigrant populations he believes are colonising Europe. Rather he massacred young people of the Left, from families and communities committed to social democracy, almost exclusively white and, in his terms, indigenously Norwegian. 

His concept of 'Norwegian' is nationalistic, Christian, white, exclusive and allied to other concepts across the world which are labelled far-right and fascist. He has allies and connections in The United Kingdom and The Netherlands. His actions mimic the violence of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed government buildings in Oklahoma City (35 degrees North, 97 degrees West) in 1995. He manifests the thuggish culture of the young Russians convicted of nineteen hate-related crimes in Moscow (55 degrees North, 37 degrees East) in 2008, though in his case he layered his personal culture of hate with veneers of membership of The Progressive Party and of the Masonic Order.

And, in an extraordinary orgy of self-publicity and hubris, he published a manifesto of 1 500 pages on the internet, apparently written by himself, in which he details his anxieties and his plans.  He is so thoroughly vain, fragile, oafish in his uniforms and his costumes, boorish and craven. So thoroughly human. So thoroughly human that he made sure the ammunition he used would explode on impact and do maximum damage to his victims, his fellow Norwegians. 

How best to respond to the challenge his views and actions present? Already Norwegians of every hue and creed are reacting with calm and telling grief, their anger and fear moderated by that powerful human antidote to Breivik and his ilk: solidarity, the ability to think of other people as 'us' and the actions necessary to extend the range of people encompassed in that 'us'. This human solidarity is based on a sense of common danger, as beings who can be humiliated. We are all capable of being humiliated and the ultimate humiliation is death and murder is its grimmest form. In Norway, fear and  fright, greed and duplicity, selfishness and evil are being faced and defeated. 

As for Breivik, the words of American philosopher Richard Rorty pertain:
'All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs and their lives...... They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person's 'final vocabulary.'.... Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.'

Breivik's resort to force marks the failure of his final vocabulary. The actions of the Norwegian citizens since the massacre see them embark on a task of redescription, creating new words and new vocabularies for their changed times. 

We need as much imaginative acquaintance as possible with alternative final vocabularies, in particular those vocabularies that enhance the sense of 'us' and strengthen solidarity, the attribute that makes us most thoroughly human. 

Contingency, irony and solidarity: Richard Rorty: Cambridge University Press

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