Breivik’s Cold Logic
In the comments to one of the several posts around here on the appalling terrorist attacks in Norway, a number of people have expressed a difficulty in understanding the logic behind what Breivik sought to accomplish, with some suggesting mental illness to be a factor in any attacks like this, which they think no sane person would view as being likely to achieve their stated goals. I think this misunderstands the nature of terrorism as a tactic, as well as why what Breivik did is only too understandable given his worldview.
Terrorism, ultimately, is about inspiring fear, forcing one’s ideological opponents to change their behaviors out of fear. It is not just the attack itself that determines whether terrorism is successful, but as importantly whether it creates fear of future attacks. This, to me, is what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of homicide and, for that matter, guerilla war.
What Breivik did seems to me to have been a disturbingly logical act. Certainly a large part of what he sought to do here was to kill off an entire generation of multi-cultural political leaders-to-be in a small country – in the US, what he did would have been the demographic equivalent of killing off thousands of College Democrats.
But even beyond that, it seems likely that he is trying to say “I am not alone; continue to indoctrinate children with multi-culturalism and tolerance of Muslims, and there will be more like this.” That he viewed his actions as being the beginning rather than the end is evidenced in no small part by the fact that he made sure to surrender alive. His 1500 page manifesto in no small part lays out how there are many whom he believes agree with him, at least ideologically, if not tactically. Accounts now coming out indicate that he has been telling the police that there are other “cells” just like him.
As with any initial terrorist attack, Breivik’s actions will no doubt spark a level of defiance from his ideological opponents – and rightly so. But what if there really are more like him? How many attacks like this would it take before those advocating for tolerance start to become fearful about doing so in public?
The cold, appalling logic of this position is made even more clear by the fact that people like Breivik (wrongly, I jump to add) really do think that a large reason multi-culturalism has begun to hold sway is precisely that others are trying to appease Muslims in response to terrorism. How often, after all, has each of us social liberals been accused of being Chamberlain at Munich for our opposition to anti-sharia laws/torture/immigration restrictions/etc.? The comparison of Muslims to fascists and Nazis is likewise not accidental. Breivik himself seems to have indeed been almost obsessively anti-Nazi, naming as his heroes the Norwegian anti-Nazi resistance fighter Max Manus and Winston Churchill.
Persons of Breivik’s ilk view Islamic influence on the West as precisely the same sort of threat as Islamic fundamentalists seem to view Western influence on the Middle East and South Asia; the symmetry is staggering. In this worldview that is shared by Breivik and Al Qaeda, as well as seemingly the Pam Gellers and Ahmadinejads of the world, Islam and the West are irreconcilable and destined to be perpetually at war until one or the other is destroyed – hence the obsession with the Gates of Vienna, the Crusades, etc. Both of these groups think their “side” is losing because of traitors and collaborators.
In this worldview, it is the appeasers and apostates, the people who are supposed to protect their culture, who are the biggest problem. As Spencer Ackerman notes, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists kill far more Muslims than they do Westerners, just as Breivik chose to kill his fellow countrymen and their children.
What Breivik did, in this worldview, is only too logical. If the appeasers and apostates are motivated in some large part by fear of violence from Islamic terrorists, then it stands to reason that fear of violence from Western “anti-jihadists” will drive them in the opposite direction.
As I hint at above, I have difficulty seeing a meaningful distinction between the worldview of Breivik and that of the Pam Gellers and Robert Spencers of the world. Obviously, Geller and Spencer have never advocated the use of private violence in furtherance of their goals, though they make no bones about their support for state-sponsored violence in support of those goals. Nor is it right to blame them for what happened in Norway – what they do clearly falls well within the bounds of free speech.
Moreover, there is a qualitative difference between the Gellers and Spencers of the world and many of their erstwhile allies on the American Right, who lack the single-minded obsession with stopping the spread of Islam in the West which most characterizes this worldview.
But it is that obsession which ultimately makes Breivik’s actions so coldly and frighteningly logical. Geller and Spencer no doubt sincerely oppose the use of violence to further their ends; then again, Geller and Spencer have influence in the US, and a major party that largely incorporates their worldview. Moreover, in a number of European countries, there are at least organized and reasonably noteworthy political parties that incorporate this worldview to a significant degree. Breivik himself seems to have singled out several of these parties for his admiration and explicitly naming Geert Wilders as one of his great heroes. Breivik, however, does not live in such a country. Instead, Breivik seems to have believed that in Norway, no avenue existed for views similar to his to ever achieve influence.
The disincentive for violence of obtaining power through legitimate means, in other words, did not exist for him. If one accepts the worldview of the Gellers and Spencers of the world but lacks any means of preventing the perceived forthcoming conquest of one’s country by Islam through legitimate political means, should we be shocked that one turns to illegitimate means to achieve those ends?
Breivik seeks to achieve by terror and fear that which he cannot hope to achieve by politics, but which Geller and Spencer can hope to achieve by politics. For him, nothing less than the fate of his country is at stake. Time will tell whether the additional attacks (or even just credible threats of attacks) he needs to permanently implement that terror and fear will occur.
In the meantime, perhaps Geller and Spencer may wish to consider whether the threat from Islam to the West is really as great as they claim. Rather than dismissing everything that contradicts these claims about the extent of such a threat as taqqiya or appeasement or naivete, perhaps they may wish to have a little less certainty about their worldview and a little more self-inquisitiveness. Most importantly, they may wish to ask themselves about the implications of their obsessive claims being literally true in an environment where they lacked access to influence and power, and whether they are comfortable with those implications.