In which, in a rather long essay, I postulate that Anders Breivik is neither exceptional nor alone.
At the beginning of his book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Daniel Goldhagen quotes a letter from Captain Wolfgang Hoffmann. Captain Hoffmann wasn't an SS man; he was a police officer assigned to Police Battalion 101, a unit comprised of ordinary police and tasked in Poland with, amongst other responsibilities, the murder of Jewish men, women, and children. As Goldhagen writes, Captain Hoffmann once stood up to his superior officers and refused to carry out an order.
Which order? Hoffmann had been told that the members of his unit were being required to sign a declaration that obliged his men not to steal from the people they were helping to put to death. Hoffmann thought an error had been made "because it appeared to me a piece of impertinence to demand of a decent German soldier to sign a declaration in which he obligates himself not to steal, not to plunder, not to buy without paying". His men would never steal! After all, as he proclaimed to his commanders, his men's German morality "derives from their own free will and is not caused by a craving for advantages or fear of punishment." His men would never steal because it was not morally sanctioned in their culture to steal. But it was morally sanctioned to kill the "enemy".
After what happened in Norway, some might be tempted to describe Anders Breivik as insane. While a psychological review of the man will certainly be undertaken, I will postulate the he won't be found to have been insane. Does he have a personality disorder that makes him less empathetic towards others he considers different? Of course. But human nature is such that we fight every day for such empathy. No, Anders Breivik is not insane. He is a man doing what we all do; taking his cues for moral behavior from the community around him. We are social animals, and more then anything, social sanction is what allows us to commit horrors against each other. Breivik found, in conservative nationalism, a community that sanctioned what he did with eliminationist rhetoric about "traitors" "enemies" and "evildoers", such as the leaders of Norway's Labor Party, and such as their children. He was not insane. He was a willing executioner. And there will be more.
* * *
A Saturday night in Oakland can be a busy time for a cop. For two California Highway Patrol officers, it turned out to be especially busy. They noticed a Toyota Tundra pickup truck on the I-580 freeway that was speeding and changing lanes unsafely. When they pulled the truck over, the driver opened fire on them with a handgun and a 308 rifle. A 12 minute gun battle ensued until officers finally brought him down. It wasn't easy, since he was wearing body armor. The driver, Byron Williams, survived and was taken into custody.
Williams was also a willing executioner. He was on his way to San Francisco, where, on Monday morning, he was planning on walking into the Tides Foundation and the local offices of the ACLU, to "start a revolution" by massacring everyone he could.
The Tides Foundation is an obscure environmental and social justice organization with a small staff, and his decision to target it appeared inexplicable at first, until Williams made it clear why he had targeted them. Glenn Beck had been railing on his television and radio shows about Tides, which he identified as part of an "evil" network, funded by George Soros, that represented an existential threat to the United States. Beck had vilified Tides on 29 different shows, weaving an image of a shadow network of traitors and corrupters bent on destroying America. In an interview, the gunman specifically sited Beck's influence. He remarked “I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind. I said, well, nobody does this.” Nobody does it. You could almost see the moral bulwark against violence giving way in his mind. Williams surrounded himself with Beck's worldview, marinated in it, and dismissed all other sources of information. He remarked "There's only one conservative channel… that's Fox. All the other ones are liberal channels... Our media accepts the false reports and downplays the conspiracy theories…(they should be called) conspiracy truths".
Glenn Beck did not order Byron Williams to kill people at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. He didn't have to. What he did was create a social sanction to do so. By painting those who didn't agree with him as evil, as traitors, as corrupters, he stripped them of their social standing in his subculture, and led the way to where their lives were no longer valued in his society. He greased the skids of murder. Thank god for the CHP.
* * *
We are social animals, yes. We are also violent animals. One of the main works of civilization is restraining that violence. As Goldhagen argues in his book, millions of every day Germans participated in the Holocaust and its related crimes. These were not sociopaths, incapable of normal emotion. Nor were they the criminally minded, who love to flaunt and break the rules of their society. Rather, they were ordinary people doing an admittedly distasteful but widely accepted task: decades of antisemitism, of German nationalism, of race theory and exaggerated resentment and conspiracy theory cultivated in the German people giving collective social sanction to the elimination of the Jews. It wasn't a cabal of evil Nazis who caused the Holocaust, it wasn't the work of a sadistic few, it wasn't the sole will and responsibility of Adolf Hitler. It was a massive undertaking, and the men and women who carried it out did so with maybe the physical revulsion of the slaughterhouse, but with no moral qualms. The simply believed that what they were doing was right, and so did everyone around them.
We know that this social sanction works. I'm 41 years old; in my lifetime, my own government has killed tens of thousands of innocent people. Children, the elderly, the unfortunate and the weak, have died at our hands, mostly from aerial bombardment at a distance, in undeclared wars of highly questionable origin and purpose. Yet like most Americans, I am still shocked that people hate and fear America. I simply don't see the killing of an Afghan child as a "real" killing. I certainly don't consider it murder, or demand justice for it. I simply sweep it under the rug. I believe that the men and women who carry out this slaughter mean well, that they are trying to do right even when their actions cry out their guilt. What is the alternative, but to consider myself deeply, wholly, and decisively guilty? What is the alternative but bitter disillusion?
Anders Breivik lived in a society that sanctioned his actions. Admittedly, with him, it was a self-selected subculture; in both his physical life and his online world, he surrounded himself with others who believed as he did that his nation, his culture, his race was under attack by an enemy. His enemy was the same enemy that gets identified night after night on Fox and talk radio and web forums; the dreaded liberal, the socialist, the communist, whatever the term of insult they are using that day. His enemies are people like you and me who believe in using government power to lift up the powerless, who aren't bothered by marginally higher taxes, who like cultural, religious, racial and gender diversity in our communities. Most nefarious to people like Breivik are the fifth columnists; people who look and speak like him, who should be on his side, but who refuse to go along with his world view. The Labor Party and its children are even worse then the immigrants he despised, because they were the ones inside the gates offering up Norway to its destruction. In the same vein, when another Christian fundamentalist soldier, Jim Adkisson of Knoxville, wished to strike against a secular society, he opened fire in a Unitarian church, because liberal Christians were even worse then unbelievers. They weren't just enemy soldiers, but traitors in the very midst of the society he believed belonged to him and his like. They had to die.
Eliminationist rhetoric is not the purview of any one ideology. In the 20th century, many political schools considered left-wing or progressive also used exactly such rhetoric. From the Cultural Revolution to the Weathermen, they saw the opponents to their often laudable goals to be less then human, stumbling blocks made flesh who simply had to be removed from the equation by any means necessary. But in Western societies this tradition of left-wing eliminationism has long been seriously out of fashion.
It's not on the nationalist right.
Every few months another attack happens. Knoxville or Tacoma, Pittsburgh or Austin. Another foot soldier exercises the courage of his convictions and strikes against those he is told over and over again are his enemy. Over and over again, many dismiss these men as insane when they are not, even if they are often marginal figures, as vanguards frequently are (Horst Wessel was hardly a saint). Over and over again, those who foment this culture of hatred, when faced with the fruits of their labor, tisk tisk and add their own week reeds to the chorus of condemnation. They proclaim that their words are never meant to incite violence, that their viewpoint is only to be acted upon in a democratic framework. Then the next day they go back to denouncing that same democratic framework as impossibly corrupted, stacked against good people by the evil ones who must be stopped at any cost.
* * *
There is a video that has been making the rounds. A group of Tea Party activists in Oregon decided to Mau Mau a local park gathering on Moveon folks. When the Moveon people decided to avoid confrontation and moved on their potluck to a nearby house, the homeowner had to block the end of his driveway to stop their taunter's vehicles. One of them allegedly threatened the homeowner with his car. When told about this, the leader of the Tea Party group, Rich Raynor, had this to say:
"They are liars… That is what communists do."
It's what they do. His fellow citizens gathered in a park to organize for democratic political activism within the system. They had to be intimidated and chased off. People with whom, in any other context, Rich Raynor would probably get along fine, now had to be dismissed. They weren't people anymore, they were communists. And communists lie. Always.
The scariest thing about this video though is not the thuggish behavior, the un-neighborly and ugly taunting and humiliating of fellow citizens. That's all par for the course in a nation of increasingly poisoned politics. What's really scary is that this video was actually posted by the very Tea Party activists who acted in this shameful fashion. You see, they weren't embarrassed. They weren't shamed. They didn't see anything wrong in what they did. They had social sanction, just like Anders Breivik.
* * *
A few weeks ago I was sitting on an island much like Utoya, in middle of a lake in Sweden, a short drive from the scene of this latest massacre. I remember thinking that there may be no more civilized place then an island in middle of a Scandinavian lake at the height of summer. It was civilized, or at least how I choose to define civilization. Anders Breivik defined civilization differently. His civilization was one of online hate forums, meetings with the English Defense League, seething resentment of brown-skinned people in his white nation. He saw the Norwegian flag as a bloody standard that needed to be defended. To Norway's credit, few of his countrymen share his view, few of them are willing to accept his eliminationist morality. Certainly, those young Labor Party youth didn't. But here is another scary thought. In a nation as un-disposed to right nationalism as Norway can sustain the kind of subculture that nurtured Breivik's world view, how many more Breivik's exist in a nation like ours that so freely embraces right-wing hatred? I spent weeks in Northern Europe without seeing a single political bumper sticker. I was back in the US only for a moment before I could feel the ugly tension that invades our culture over issues of who or what an American should be. Day by day the drip drip of dehumanization continues. Sometimes it even goes on in the forums of this web page, as we react with fear to these attacks and demonize those who do the same. How do we leech this poison out of our culture before crimes like Breivik's become unremarkable?
Anders Breivik is a terrorist. He did his job. He has me terrorized, because I know that there are others like him. More are being made every day. Right now, there is someone, probably a number of people, sitting in front of their computers reading the coverage of events in Norway and thinking that what Anders Breivik did is morally acceptable. They don't live in a social sphere that condemns this kind of violence. They don't think that Breivik is a monster. They think that he is a soldier. And they want to be a soldier, too.
2:42 PM PT: See this diary for a few images of some of the victims. The last photo is of a young man who just graduated from High School. He is wearing the traditional graduation cap that I just saw students wearing in Denmark a few weeks ago. Good lord. http://www.dailykos.com/...
3:07 PM PT: Breivik describes his actions as "atrocious" but "necessary". As I said, he's not insane, he thinks that what he did was morally right.
3:24 PM PT: Thanks for promoting this to the Rec List. I just wish it wasn't for commenting on something so stomach-churning. Between the Tides Foundation thing (I have a friend who works in their office) and this attack in a corner of the world I just visited and adored, I'm pretty damned wound up these days. I don't know how we fix this one, folks.
I picture of me on an island like Utoya earlier this month.