Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Is Anders Breivik?

Bret Stephens

The Oslo terrorist is neither Christian nor conservative.

Whatever else they were, Friday's terrorist atrocities in Norway were not the work of Islamic terrorists. That speculation, ubiquitous in the hours that immediately followed the massive explosion in downtown Oslo, ended with the arrest of Anders Behring Breivik as he was gunning down scores of youngsters, execution-style, at an island retreat.

Since then, the world has learned a great deal about who Breivik is, down to the quotidian details of his schooling, his farm, his parents' divorce and his regular Sunday lunches with his mother. The more important question—and the one that so far has been mainly misdiagnosed—is, what is Breivik?Perhaps because he shows no obvious signs of mental illness, the media has alighted on a political answer. Besides being an "ethnic Norwegian," Breivik is a "Christian," a "gun enthusiast,"and a "right-wing nationalist" whose views, according to Time magazine, "recall neo-Nazi politics." In an interview Breivik conducted with himself as part of his 1,500-page manifesto, "2083: A European Declaration of Independence," he speaks of his pride in his "Viking heritage," says he belongs to "an Indigenous Rights Movement" and insists that he will not "accept an Islamic presence in Europe."

In short, a right-wing nutjob.

That he no doubt is. Yet there are a lot of right-wing nutjobs out there, many of whom entertain views far more extreme than Breivik's, including on the subject of Islam. They typically do not take it upon themselves to go on terrorist rampages. Nor will it do to say that because Breivik read this or that blog, or admired this or that author, that those blogs or authors are complicit in his crime. Breivik's parting shot on Twitter was to quote John Stuart Mill. Will the greatest champion of civil liberties now be in bad ideological odor, too?

The more telling side of Breivik's manifesto is his self-description as "Justiciar Knight Commander for the Knights Templar of Europe," a group he claims has some 80 members and held a secret meeting in London in 2002. The fetishistic medievalism—Breivik seems to have designed a military dress uniform, and wants to wear it to his trial—is significant: Like Osama bin Laden and his epigones, his worldview seems mainly defined by the politics of the 13th century. And that worldview is fundamentally geared toward hastening an apocalypse.

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Associated Press

The terrorist in "Knights Templar" getup.

In a superb new book, "Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience," Boston University's Richard Landes notes just how pervasive this kind of impulse has been throughout history and across cultures, and how much its many strains—Christian, Marxist, Islamist, Nazi, environmentalist and so on—have in common. Breivik, Mr. Landes says, was of a piece: "Like many active cataclysmic apocalypticists, he believed that the socio-political world is in huge tension, like tectonic plates about to crack, and if he can set off a small explosion in the right place it will unleash far greater forces." In this sense, Mr. Landes adds, "the thing he resembles most is the people he hates."

He's right, and not just in regards to methods. Just as al Qaeda's primary fury has always been directed at Muslims who they view as apostates, traitors or stooges of the West, the main object of Breivik's hatred was what he called the "cultural Marxists" who dominated Norwegian politics. "If they refuse to surrender until 2020," he said of them, "there will be no turning back. We will eventually wipe out every single one of them."

Similarly, the purpose of Breivik's massacre wasn't simply to kill off the Labor party's leadership, current and future. It was to create a spectacle, and in doing so energize a cause. It's no accident that he wants media present at his trial: He has now entered what he calls the propaganda phase of his campaign, in which he imagines he will be given "a stage to the world" through which he can win over "tens of millions of European sympathizers and tens of thousands of brothers and sisters who support us fully and are willing to fight beside us." This was precisely what al Qaeda hoped to achieve (and to an extent did achieve) with 9/11.

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.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com

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