Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Is Anders Breivik?

From Bret Stephens, at Wall Street Journal, "The Oslo Terrorist is Neither Christian Nor Conservative."

On Friday morning Breivik wrote that "today you will become immortal." He seems to have meant it literally. Whatever else might be said of that particular longing, it can hardly be called religious (what then would be the point of an afterlife?), or Christian (murdering children en masse is not a tenet of any Christian faith), or conservative (a political tendency that is fundamentally anti-utopian).

What it is is millennarian: the belief that all manner of redemptive possibilities lie on just the other side of a crucible of unspeakable chaos and suffering. At his arrest, Breivik called his acts "atrocious but necessary." Stalin and other Marxists so despised by Breivik might have said the same thing about party purges or the liquidation of the kulaks.

These are the politics that have largely defined our age and which conservatives have, for the most part, been foremost in opposing. To attempt to tar them with Breivik's name is worse than a slur; it's a concession to a killer with pretensions of intellectual sophistication. And it's a misunderstanding of what he was all about.

Norway, Europe and probably the U.S. will now have anxious debates about xenophobia, populism and the rise of neofascism. These are worthy topics, but they are incidental to understanding what happened on Friday. What we witnessed was the irruption of an impulse—more psychological than political—that defines a broader swath of the ideological spectrum than most people would care to acknowledge. As for Breivik, there ought to be no question as to what he is: evil incarnate.
Stephens' essay emphasizes a key point I raised in my analysis of the manifesto: "Breivik hopelessly romanticizes an earlier time that is simply not coming back. He's crazy in that sense." Still, it bears remembering that indeed Breivik's influences were in conservative writings, and that's not to discount his the millenarian infirmities. The answer to Breivik is somewhere between Stephens' analysis and Ross Douthat's, "A Right-Wing Monster." That crazed criminal resides somewhere between millenarianism and the rhetoric of cultural conservatism.

4 comments:

Jason Pappas said...

The key is understanding why he believes "the end justifies the means." This is true no matter what "end" he is fighting for. Here's a crucial passage:

"By studying all available data, we know that once the Muslims reach approximately 50%
of the population there will be a conflict which is likely to result in enormous human
suffering. At that point, morality will lose its meaning. The question of good and evil will
be reduced to one simple choice for us; Survive or perish. The "strongman" is what we
are headed for. He's not what we want; he's just the inevitable endgame."

Here he is talking about phase 3 but the mentality is important. When I read "morality will lose its meaning" it sounded familiar. I remember my high school days when I had many friends on the left (in the late 1960s). I watch as them went from wide-eyed flower children to rock throwers often in a few months. I wouldn't doubt that some might have been able to cross the line into mad bombers.

What happens is that the process of civilization--reason, debate, and persuade--lose their meaning in the face of an imperative. For my high school friends is was "stop the war" and that meant by war if necessary. For Breivick it is stop the "cultural genocide" of "indigenous" Norwegians even if it means killing innocent Norwegians in he short term.

His millennial dream of bringing down civilization in order to cleanse it is not specific to any ideology. It is one of extreme urgency born of a heightened sense of immediate or impending doom. This “emergency” means exception making and exemption from normal moral rules. The question then is not is he right or left or Christian or Muslim but how did he become detached from reality to the point that normal morality ceases to have meaning for him. What made him a “warrior against civilization” itself?

Donald Douglas said...

Nice commentary, Jason. It add nicely to what I've written, and fleshes out a explanation even better. We're guaranteed that progressives won't care for what you and I write, of people like Bret Stephens who comes closest to characterizing and explaining Breivik's evil.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Donald, I'm enjoying your ongoing commentary and thought you might enjoy a few of my own. I attempted a first pass analysis on my blog.

Donald Douglas said...

I'll check it out. That's great you're writing.