On July 22, 2011, Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo and on Utoya Island. Seeing the killer back in the spotlight – and seeing how he basks in all the media attention – is of course unpleasant. But we should still be watching. Why? Because the case has a lot to teach us about the violence that so fascinates our society and how that violence ties in with politics and the entertainment industry.
Breivik hates Marxists and Muslims. He loves novels about knights. In 1999, Eric Harris, another gunman run amok, shot – together with a friend – 13 people at Littleton, Colorado's Columbine High School before turning his gun on himself. What he hated was when people in front of him walked too slowly and held him up. He also hated racists, but loved violent computer games, industrial rock music, and Nazi symbolism.
The cases are different, and have also been interpreted very differently. In Littleton, or so the common wisdom goes, the perpetrator was an outsider. In Oslo, the murders were carried out by an extremist from the mainstream right.
Both interpretations are at least half true. We like to believe that Harris was desensitized from overexposure to violent movies and computer games, and that right-wing politics bear at least a little responsibility for the Oslo attack. We want reasons, pat explanations; we want to be able to draw conclusions so we can implement changes we hope will reduce the chances of such a thing happening again.
But if we want explanations, we'd be far better off seeking them not from within our own picture of the world, but in that of the perpetrators – however unpleasant that may be. Breivik and Harris have something in common with other gunmen on a rampage: they spent months, even years, planning for the Big Day. They kept up the front of being friendly, functioning members of society. Both, however, were really living in their own shut-off worlds. Fuelled by the surfeit of fictional heroes served up by the entertainment industry, they gave themselves starring roles in their own secret blockbuster.
Constructing closed-off worlds
Exactly what media sector -- or what political ideology -- inspired them is not important. What does matter is the warring, messianic identity that the perpetrator, isolated in his psycho action-man cocoon, adopts, and the role of Judge of the Universe that his narcissism urges upon him. Breivik was convinced he was a holy crusader. Harris liked to play “Doom,” a shooter's game with an all-powerful cannon – the BFG (big f-ing gun) that could annihilate almost anything it was aimed at. In their respective worlds, both Breivik and Harris saw themselves as legitimate representatives of whatever universal power it is that decides over life and death.
Books, movies, games, but also political programs, are the wings in which these perpetrators wait before they explode onto the stage. This is where they do their target practice, plan the attacks, write the manifestos and press releases, design the costumes.
And it's disturbing how familiar these wings are. Millions pass through them. But wings are just wings – not author and leading actor. The perpetrators may find a vocabulary of words and gestures there, and a panoply of possible heroic characters to choose from, but the decision to act is theirs alone.
Anyone who peruses Breivik's terminally self-adulating manifesto will come to the exact opposite conclusion of what the killer intended readers to draw. They understand that his act was not, as he claims, a political one in the name of an anti-Islamist movement. Breivik was not an activist of the mainstream right, just as Eric Harris was not acting in the name of anti-racists or fast-walking pedestrians.
If extreme right- or left-wing politics are dangerous it's not because mass murderers claim to do things based on the ideologies. They're dangerous because they're about creating closed-off worlds, and claim to do so for the betterment of mankind.
As Breivik was putting the finishing touches on his plans, the right-wing American Tea Party was predicting that the debt crisis would lead to economic disaster. Same psychology – do it our way and the sun will rise once more.
What drove Breivik on that horrendous day was the hopeless belief that one is acting in the name of God, but also in the name of a future “enlightened” government or society -- even though that means causing the greatest possible destruction right now.