On August 24th, 2012, a Norwegian court found Anders Behring Breivik sane and guilty of 77 murders. He was imprisoned for a maximum sentence of 21 years, and to a quiet cheer, a dark stain of recent history was resolved.
Outside of the murder and bombing, there was a legal controversy: was he sane or not? Before he went on his rampage, Breivik put forth a long, rambling, and somewhat persuasive (in radical circles) manifesto similar to that of Ted Kaczynksi, infamous Unabomber. In response, the court pre-emptively ruled that Breivik was a paranoid schizophrenic. Both Breivik and the prosecution argued otherwise; as Tore Sinding Bekkedal, one of the survivors, said: “I believe he is mad, but it is political madness and not psychiatric madness.” So the decision was reversed: Breivik was sane (though also deemed “narcissistic” by psychiatric teams associated with the case), and guilty. The court closed with the maximum punishment in Norwegian law.
And Tore Bekkedal is right. To have declared Breivik insane would have been to absolve him of guilt. He is, as Bekkedal continued, “a sad and pathetic person,” a fringe extremist, or in some circles, a revolutionary.
I argued elsewhere that today’s cultural and political negativity is a symptom of using fear to sell political ideas. Breivik was exactly that: to better market his cause, he underwent plastic surgery to look more 'Aryan'. In his opening testimony, he read at length from a version of his manifesto, going over his allotted time despite interruption from the court to “keep it short.” Some complained that Breivik was turning the trial into a platform for his ideological views, and complained that the trial would have been very different untelevised.
There was, however, another controversy that practically everyone skirted away from. Perhaps, it was the most terrifying one of all: what does it mean for us, for society, and for politics, that Breivik is sane? To admit that normal, rational people could go around killing others with as if they were simply going to their nine-to-five? How should we react as a nation, a society, a culture, or an individual when it is revealed that mass murderers are no different from our next door neighbors?
The Breivick trial puts reverses everything we learned about evil from the aftermath of the Holocaust. In covering the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe a very particular sort of wrongdoing, one propagated by normally good men. It is when evil is built of out small parts, like an assembly line that adds up to one large horrific act. Ordinary men, obeying law and order, ended up systematically rounding up and murdering great numbers of people throughout Europe. At one point, Eichmann, who as director-of-holocaust was to bear responsibility for millions of deaths, was asked: “Do you feel guilty?” His lawyer responded for him: “He feels guilty before God, but not before the law.” After all, wasn’t he just following orders? If he didn’t follow them, he too would have been rounded up and shot, replaced by someone else who would follow command. And it wasn’t just Eichmann: Arendt argues that the Holocaust would not have possible on such a large scale if not for the cooperation of a great number of Jewish leaders, who each in small ways facilitated and coordinated with Nazis, trying to lessen the impacts or save themselves. If not one person, than another. The “banality of evil,” as Arendt argues, is boring and faceless. It is a factory of interchangeable faces, and Adolf Eichmann had the questionable luck of being at its head.
The question then stands: is it your ethical or moral imperative to rebel against systematized evil? Even if it costs your life, aren’t you fulfilling your ultimate potential to throw a fork in the wheels of evil? How far do we stretch that imperative? For example, is it okay to kill a Nazi, knowing that a large number of Nazis only donned the ideology to save themselves, and used their new invisibility to save Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies? Breivik saw himself as this fork to stop the machine, and the evil he was fighting against was multiculturalism. He genuinely believed everything he said, especially that it was his moral duty to stand up against liberalism. He claimed he was defending and protecting Norway. He took all of our philosophy about rebellion, moral authority, making a stance… and presented a paradoxical mirror to it.
There are two quotes which sum up the many paradoxes of being Anders Breivik: “One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.” And, just as famous, the saying “history is written by the victor.” (Though I’m tempted to add, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals,” said by American General Curtis LeMay to Robert McNamara, regarding the World War 2 bombings of Japan.)
It is not enough to be outraged with the work of Breivik. If he is sane, then we admit that he is in some way a product of our society, informed by how we conduct our day-to-day lives, inspired by our laws and our prejudices. To call him sane is to say that it is not unlikely that there could be others just like him. In calling him sane, we hold not just him responsible, but admit guilt as a society, that such a man (because that’s the scary part, that he’s only a man) could have been raised and nurtured between us all, that he is not just an accident of biochemistry. In doing so, we must understand the latent hypocrisy at the core of our beliefs. Perhaps the most important reflection that can be made regarding the whole trial is this: our passive intolerance breeds monsters.
This is again the paradox of tolerance: how large a swathe of opinions can we tolerate before we find ourselves in the spectrum of intolerance, and fall prey to it? Whether it is fringe ultra-nationalist and hyper-conservative elements like Anders Breivik, or similar immigrant communities that want to change the values and laws of a country to reflect their own culture and beliefs… at which point does a country begin to question what composes its national identity? Does the “burqa-ban” in France count as a matter of religious intolerance or an assertion of French identity, insomuch as French people want to be known as a group who celebrate revealing their physical selves, religion-be-damned? Or, closer to home, do we hold the American identity as a community of immigrants with its revelry of tolerance, or as a more conservative a country unified and informed by its founding Protestant ethics?
Conservative movements in America, as elsewhere, have tried to dictate these answers, albeit in very narrow views, and have inspired their own share of intolerance and violence. We don’t need answers so much as we need conversation, debate, and argument. We need to try things out, carefully experiment with the limits, and if we find things not working (by which metric?), we need to react carefully, change things. Never to the extreme. Government, politics, and culture should never be extremist or deaf to argument…
How do we take responsibility, not just for an Anders Breivik within our lives, but for a society that allows sane men like him to come into being? Parents need to talk with their kids, governments with their citizens, friends with other friends. Without talking through all of this, we only breed more intolerance and more violence. Denis Leary put it best: “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” Accepting Breivik as sane is a high point of social responsibility; but now, we have to follow up, lest another town, city, or country end up bathed in hatred, blood, and tears.
Roman Kudryashov is the founding editor of What Are These Ideas. Educated in design and political philosophy, he often writes about the intersection of language, society, and technology. He currently lives in New York.Contact: