Skip to main content

What explains the massacre in Norway?

A lot of people think they know. Anders Breivik, who has confessed to the attack, was marinated in a brew of xenophobia and hate. In such a climate, violence was probably inevitable. "There was a sense that this kind of thing was going to happen," opined one expert on the CBC's The Current. "… The politics of hate have moved from the margins to the mainstream."

This poisoned climate was created, we are told, by the right-wing writings (or ravings, depending on your point of view) of people such as Mark Steyn and Robert Spencer, who say Muslim immigration poses a big threat to Europe. "This rhetoric is not cost-free," one terrorism expert told The New York Times. A commentator on Al Jazeera's English-language website warned that the massacre showed "the extent to which reactionary bigotry has infected mainstream thought."

But has it? Norway, the most liberal and tolerant of countries, has no significant far-right party. Nor are discussions about problems with multiculturalism and Muslim immigration confined to Europe's lunatic fringe – they've been raised by many mainstream leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair. And not even Mr. Steyn has advocated violence, never mind mass murder, as a way to deal with them.

Could it be that Mr. Breivik is just plain crazy? What a yawning void of air time that would create. Yet, the evidence for this is rather strong. He believed that killing Norwegian youths and children was the best way to inspire a mass uprising against Islam. If that's not crazy, tell me what is. In his 1,500-page manifesto, he wrote that, once he gets the chance to explain himself before a jury, they're bound to see things his way.

It's always tempting to find rational explanations for senseless crimes. These explanations invariably reflect the moral or political beliefs of the day. For years, the Columbine killings were blamed on the evil influences of video games and bullying that turned ordinary schoolboys into deranged killers. The trouble is that millions of kids are exposed to video games and bullying without turning into deranged killers. The banal truth is that the Columbine killers had serious psychological problems.

The same rush to judgment occurred earlier this year when a young man shot a U.S. congresswoman in the head, along with 18 other people. Many in the media blamed the shootings on inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, which had created a climate of hate that made violence inevitable. After all, didn't Sarah Palin's website show a graphic of the congresswoman's district in the crosshairs? Alas, there was nothing to this. The shooter simply turned out to be clinically insane.

Blaming the Norwegian slaughter on xenophobic rhetoric makes about as much sense as blaming mail bombings on Al Gore, just because Ted Kaczynski had a marked-up copy of Earth in the Balance at his bedside. Yet, when it comes to right-wing nuts, there's a widespread sense that you shouldn't rile them up. "There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do," Bill Clinton said recently. No, he wasn't talking about Norway. He was talking about Timothy McVeigh, who blew up 168 people with a fertilizer bomb.

For Norwegians, the only lesson of this tragedy is not that it's somehow dangerous to rile up the extremists, or that candid discussions of multiculturalism and immigration should be off-limits. The lesson is that nobody – not even Norwegians, the most agreeable people in the world – is safe from lunatics. Norwegians used to think that crazy gunmen who shoot up kids were strictly an American disease. Now, sadly, they know better.