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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Anders Behring Breivik’s thought crimes

A man reads a newspaper with a prominent photo of Norway's twin terror attacks suspect Anders Behring Breivik in central Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday. Photo: AP/Emilio Morenatti

It goes without saying that Anders Behring Breivik’s rampage in Norway is an unforgivable crime. But in trying to understand how he came to do it – how a man who, by all accounts seemed to be social, well-adjusted and politically engaged chose to murder 76  people – the public discussion is focusing on his ideology in search for answers. This is a mistake.

The counterterrorism industry — and it is an industry worth billions of dollars — thrives on exegetical analyses of terrorists’ works. They believe that understanding a sermon, manifesto or a video will unlock the mysteries of why people take up weapons and commit horrible crimes. And that in turn, creates the impression that everyone who holds extreme views is a potential terrorist because these experts rarely make the distinction between radicalization and terrorism.

The focus on Breivik’s radical ideology — his appreciations of extreme right-wing bloggers like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, his loose allegiance with Europeans opposed to Muslim immigration, his desire for a culturally hegemonic “Norway”— completely obscures the larger discussion of why he chose to commit acts of violence. Holding Breivik’s views, even in Norway, is not a crime. Norwegians (and Americans) have freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the freedom to be a jerk. They do not have the freedom to commit murder.

By focusing so much on Breivik’s radicalization, instead of his decision to commit mass murder, we are in effect creating a thought crime. The real outrage with Breivik isn’t that he had bought into a broad movement grappling with the shifting demographic composition of Europe, it’s that he responded to it by setting off bombs and murdering children. In all the media discussion of Breivik’s atrocity, there is almost no serious grappling with the specifics of why he chose to pick up a gun and start shooting.

It’s easy to focus on anti-Muslim bloggers and assign them blame for bad things happening (as noted counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann did this week). They are certainly easy to dislike: writers like Geller do not inspire sympathy. But focusing on the backlash against multiculturalism, immigration or liberalism in general is, at the absolute most, only addressing a tiny piece of the puzzle of why someone like Breivik chose to commit a violent act.

Among social psychologists there is very little agreement about the process by which a person chooses to commit horrific acts of violence. Jeffrey Dahmer and Breivik both murdered people in chilling, utterly inhuman ways. Dahmer is rightly described as a psychopath who took pleasure in his gruesome murders; looking at Breivik’s face as he was brought to his hearing on Monday, is it hard to imagine he doesn’t derive a similar sense of satisfaction from killing? But Breivik published a manifesto about politics, and Dahmer did not, so the current thinking dictates that Breivik must be understood via his political beliefs and not his psychosis. It doesn’t make any sense.

The problem with creating a thought crime around Breivik’s politics is that it has the potential to make the situation much worse. On Wednesday, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg vowed that Breivik’s attacks would not fundamentally alter the nature of Norway. “We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions — that’s completely legal, legitimate to have,” he said. “What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence.”  The solution, he told reporters, was “more democracy,” not less of it.

This is absolutely sensible. Much of the extreme ring wing in both Europe and the U.S. is grounded in the belief that the government is unresponsive to their concerns and that the nature of their communities is changing in ways they can’t control. It is important that those views, however repulsive to the liberal-minded, find free expression in legitimate outlets. Decrying these groups’ right to express frustrations about the nature of their society is as likely to exaggerate the problem of radicalization as it is to marginalize it.

There’s no guarantee that a crackdown on certain types of thought will lead to a reduction of certain kinds of action. In some cases, like the Middle East, repressing certain political viewpoints can inspire violent reactions, be it Islamic terror in the 1990s or some of the current Arab Spring revolutionaries. It can also succeed in tamping down reactions, as evidenced by much of North Korea’s stilted political opposition movement.

What’s needed in the aftermath of the tragedy in Norway, then, is not an obsession with Breivik’s politics. He shares those politics with millions of other Europeans and Americans, none of whom murdered dozens of children. What we need, to really understand and maybe prevent future Breiviks, is an understanding of how and why he chose violence.

That answer might be in his self-serving epic manifesto, but it seems unlikely. (We should keep in mind that he wanted his murderous rampage to be an advertisement for his philosophy, and we shouldn’t be complicit in playing his game.) The process of choosing to commit a violent crime is contingent upon many factors; it’s a complex decision with many factors that are still not very well understood.

In other words, we are broadly missing the point. Breivik is a monster, not because of his right-wing politics but because of his decision to commit murder. In trying to understand him, we should look at his choices, not just his beliefs. Otherwise, we risk blaming the wrong people and missing any lessons for preventing a future atrocity.