Last week (Friday 22 July), a man brought a brutal plan to its grim conclusion in Oslo and Utoeya. After years of festering in resentment and roiling with anger, he worked up the conviction to act on his beliefs. He methodically worked out how to make and plant a home-made bomb. He coldly calculated an ambush of young women and men participating in a political summer camp.
He detonated his car bomb and killed 8 people, as well as damaging the prime minister’s office and several buildings in the area. While the city reacted to the terrifying scene, this man calmly made his way to a summer camp on the island of Utoeya dressed as a policeman, armed with an automatic rifle and enough ammunition to carry out an hour-long attack on the residents of the camp. He killed 68 people before surrendering.
Lie No. 1:
As shocking as the attack in Oslo was, it was apparently less shocking than the identity of this angry and violent man. Right-wing media outlets predictably lead with the unconfirmed story that the attack was carried out by Jihadists. But even mainstream commentators and more responsible media outlets ran with the Islamic terror story without evidence and have pushed the angle even after it was revealed that the perpetrator was a white, Christian, “nationalist” from Norway.
Why did the press so quickly and thoroughly misrepresent the story? We can talk about a knee-jerk response or blame faulty reporting, but there’s a simpler and more troubling dynamic at work here. That answer is that “we” expect angry and violent men committing these type of attacks to be Muslim, non-white, non-European.
Even as the true perpetrator of last Friday’s attacks was found and his own racist views made public, the media and the public struggled to accept and understand Anders Breivik because of their own entrenched racism. The hands that commit such violence are supposed to be brown hands, hands that pray to a false and violent God, hands raised in angry protests in far away countries, hands reaching out to choke white victims. Our image of violence reveals the violence of our images.
The blithe accusation of Muslim extremists and the immediate belief that the attacks in Oslo must have been perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, or some other shadowy network, reveal how deeply racist narratives are embedded in “our” understanding of the world.
Lie No. 2:
This man was not, however, simply a lone individual lost in a psychotic delusion. He found many political allies both in Norway and abroad – though all but the most extreme individuals and groups have disavowed the man’s attacks.
He is a participant in a transnational network that believes in the superiority of European (read white) cultures and ethnicities (though in many cases the racial element is sub-textual), opposes governments seen as “Marxist”, “multicultural” and insufficiently “nationalistic”, and endorses, and often openly advocates, the use of violence to preserve the nation. If the word terrorism means anything (which perhaps it doesn’t), this man is clearly a right-wing terrorist who emerged from a radical far-right political context. This shouldn’t be surprising – right-wing terrorism is as common as any other form – and in Europe over the past several years more common that “Islamist” terrorism.
The press and other commentators have struggled with Anders Breivik as a story to be represented because he looks like one of “us”, because from his oddly strained appearance to his fascist politics to his dress-up games he represents a fractured image of European/white elitism. This is why the press’ second instinct is to describe him as a lone mass murder – a familiar figure of white violence as anomalous, unnatural, a condition to be treated, a form of resentment that while tragic is understandable, something the Muslim terrorist never is.
But the political focus of his attacks (and those of other so-called “lone-wolves”) give lie to the explanation that he’s simply crazed or drugged. Breivik, then, presents us with a disturbing reflection of “Western” culture. His virulent racism reminds us of the unsettling presence of neo-fascists, ethnic nationalists and white supremacists in our political communities, while also pushing us to question how those same attitudes of resentment resonate in more mainstream political discourses with increasingly frequency.
Lie No. 3:
It’s not “far right”, it’s a bitter fruit from a central branch of the tree of European modernity.
Even if we move beyond assumptions that terrorists are primarily Muslim extremists and acknowledge that figures like Breivik never develop their ideas nor carry out their violent acts in isolation – it remains all too easy to treat such violent and hate-filled individuals as exceptional, to label the politics of the groups that support and encourage such views as “extreme” or “far-right”. The need to create distance, while psychology understandable, should be confronted.
We find plenty of explanations for neo-fascist, racist and nationalist strains in our political communities – the frustration of white, working-class men facing socio-economic losses in an increasingly diverse culture, the loss of national identities in a “globalising” world, the pressures of living in heterogeneous metropolitan centres, etc. And while these pressures and frustrations may be real, we need to consider how and why they find expression in the virulent politics of a man like Breivik.
The project of modernity has bequeathed to us narratives of European civilizational superiority, racial hierarchies that place white men at the top of the social structure, national identities based on the exclusion of difference from the social body and the state territory, and capitalist forms of exploitation justified by protestant mythologies of individual desert and guilt. These social ideals and structures set the stage on which white resentments and anxieties are played out – and while they don’t represent the sum total of “Western” culture, we should not fool ourselves into thinking they are marginal to our contemporary world. Right-wing political violence is real and a constant threat to democratic politics, as well as human bodies, and we should not comfort ourselves with lies.