'If Anders Breivik was any shade of brown," observed a commentator on Twitter last week as the trial got under way of the notorious Norwegian mass murderer, "the word 'insane' wouldn't even be palatable to the West. What a world."
The point being, presumably, that it's easier to have a man declared insane for killing eight people with a car bomb in Oslo and 69 youngsters at a youth camp on Utoya Island rather than face the possibility that there may be plenty of other nice, ordinary, rational people out there who share his ideology, and even sympathise with his actions?
If so, then the commentator has a point. The debate over Arab fundamentalism rarely revolves around the sanity or otherwise of the participants. It's accepted they are terrorists, they're punished accordingly, end of story. Why not Anders Behring Breivik?
Hypocrisy, however, cuts both ways. If Breivik was a Muslim radical, there'd also be endless newspaper articles, TV documentaries and earnest panel-show discussions devoted to explaining what turned an unremarkable young man into a mass murderer. That's what happened with Mohammad Siddique Khan and the other July 7 bombers in London, who killed 52 victims as well as themselves. But while there's an appetite for hearing how Israeli and US actions might radicalise Muslim youth, there's less interest in Breivik's explanations of how the Nato bombing of Belgrade in 1999 radicalised him. People either don't want to listen, or don't believe him when they do.
Even when Breivik admits his admiration for al-Qaeda's use of "extreme methods to force change", he is dismissed out of hand by many of the same people who argued that Osama bin Laden's railings against the West needed to be heard to prevent further atrocities. In that sense, the reaction to Breivik's claims to have a rational motivation for his actions feels like a return to the way terrorists were traditionally seen -- as deranged, unfathomable. "Mindless violence" was the phrase that Irish and British ministers always used to describe killings in Belfast. It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Political violence is many things, but never mindless. If anything, it's the exact opposite. Terrorists always know what they're doing. It's the rest of us who don't understand.
The court will decide if Breivik is mad in the legal sense. It's more a question of what punishment can be imposed on him rather than an abstract clinical debate. But whatever is decided raises new dilemmas. If he's mad, and therefore either didn't know what he was doing or didn't know that it was wrong, then civilised Western opinion says that he can't be held accountable for his actions. He is, in effect, unwell. If he's sane, then he has the right under Norwegian law to defend his actions as justifiable, however offensive it might be to victims and their families to hear him declare proudly that slaughtering innocent people was "necessary" to save Europe from the greater evil of multiculturalism or express regret that he didn't get to kill hundreds.
Many onlookers seem to want it both ways -- to have Breivik declared sane so that he can be held accountable for the crimes he committed, while simultaneously denying him what Margaret Thatcher once called the "oxygen of publicity" in case his words inspire others to follow his lead. Some even claim that to discuss his ideas at all is to unwittingly legitimise them. In answer, Norway is trying a typically Scandinavian compromise. Breivik gets to speak, but, apart from a brief statement on the first day, he must do so behind closed doors, without live coverage. He's under a sort of Section 31 injunction. His words can be reported and repeated, but not in his own voice. He even echoes our own
experience of terrorists in the North by refusing to recognise the court.
I never supported Section 31. As a (possibly naive) free-speech zealot, I think even terrorists should be allowed to speak, and that the risks involved in letting evil men disseminate their views are risks worth taking. But even if benign censorship was a good idea, the days when it could be enforced are long past. Sinn Fein didn't have access to the internet during the Troubles, whereas Breivik's near million-word manifesto can be downloaded in seconds. There's no more chance of his pick-and-mix conspiracist ideology being smothered than there is of King Canute holding back the tide.
What's more, trying to do so threatens to bolster his self-image as a silenced martyr who had no option but to pick up a gun to make himself heard. Better to let him rant, and make his childishly defiant fisted salutes, and thus see him for what he is -- an immature loser who played World of Warcraft games online for up to 16 hours a day; a little boy with a gun who had delusions of belonging to some Dungeons & Dragons-style secret organisation called the Knights Templar, and dreamed of beheading the former prime minister. That Anders Breivik, all self-pity and wounded petulance, would inspire no one. A shadowy figure censored into mysteriousness is another matter. That Breivik would be as perfect for propaganda as only a fictional character can be.
Ultimately, you just have to trust people. The hundreds who queued for hours outside the courtroom in Oslo did not come to pay tribute. They only wanted to know what makes a man who kills children tick. It's natural human curiosity, particularly in the case of a so-called Lone Wolf attacker such as Breivik. This category of killers rarely survive their spree attacks; they either commit suicide or else are killed by others in the course of their actions.
The next 10 weeks in court in Oslo are a rare opportunity to observe at close hand the stew of private fantasy and resentment which creates such public cruelty, not only for professional psychiatrists behind closed doors, but the general public as well.
Maybe his thoughts will prove as impossible to pin down as smoke rings, and he'll simply be exposed as another nutter or a ruthless fame junkie playing at being a soldier only as long as the "enemy" don't have weapons to fire back. But that's no reason not to make the attempt. We heard out all the mealy-mouthed rationalisations for the 9/11 and 7/7 perpetrators, after all. Their victims are no less dead than Breivik's.
Foreign news, Page 16