An Ugly Mind
By Sarah-Jane CollinsMay 4, 2012
Anders Behring Breivik wants the world to know accept his claim that he is sane. But how can someone who proudly admits to hunting down children not be mad?
When Anders Behring Breivik stepped onto the pier at Utøya what followed was for many unimaginable. Horrific. And, given the circumstances and what Breivik has since said motivated him, an indisputable act of terrorism. Young people. Idealistic. Ambitious. Political.
Targets of racist, anti-Islamic hatred.
Not for the colour of their skin, or their own religion, but for their ideas. Breivik's actions inspired fear, revulsion, disgust. And all of Norway — and probably the world — were left shaking their heads.
What was he thinking? And what makes the prejudiced mind tick?
"Racism isn't in our bones, it's in our thoughts and feelings and energies. I don't think there's such a thing as a wholly racist person, although Anders Breivik probably comes close," psychologist Heather Gridley tells The Global Mail.
"As children we have to organise our thinking. Children first learn who mum or dad is and then that not everyone is mum or dad… They might see animals and eventually have to work out that every four-legged animal is not called doggy, or is not their dog. So we do form a lot of our perceptions around categories to make sense of the world. But that doesn't tell us what the content of those categories is going to be."
To make the leap from organisation in the mind to racism, there needs to be another layer.
"You've got to be taught how to hate, you're not born hating. There are some theories that look at lack of empathy, or inability to take somebody else's perspective for setting up more racist attitudes, and it's probably the case that all our attitudes become more rigid when we think we're under threat," Gridley says.
The Australian Psychological Society released a position paper on racism and prejudice in the 1990s that chronicles some of the reasons why people think in racist terms.
"Racism refers to pervasive and systematic assumptions of the inherent superiority of certain groups, and inferiority of others, based on cultural differences in values, norms and behaviours," the paper says.
Gridley says prejudice and racism may not be as obvious today, but that doesn't mean people are necessarily less racist overall.
"We have a lot less tolerance for the really obvious forms of racism than we did 20 or 30 years ago. It doesn't mean people are less racist now or were more racist then, it's just that there was more permission to hold and express views, and those views were available," she says.
And the APS paper — almost 15 years old now — also talks about the way racism is less overt, now than in the past, making it in some instances harder to track and combat.
"Some have argued that modern racism is less invidious and less odious than its old-fashioned blatant form. However, research on racism has demonstrated that the modern variant is more insidious, entrenched, resilient and difficult to counteract, whether at individual or societal levels," it says.
If this was true in 1997, when it was still relatively difficult to reach out and find other extremists who shared your views, it can only have been magnified by the rise of the internet.
If, as the APS said in 1997, racism is largely hidden in our modern societies, how do you meet like-minds in the street? Well, you probably find many more like-minds online.
Breivik, who claims to have acted as a representative of a community of white supremacists and anti-Islamists, appears to have found that community — and whether it is real or imagined is in dispute — online.
Breivik signs off his manifesto with the following title:
"Justiciar Knight Commander for Knights Templar Europe and one of several leaders of the National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement."
He then thanks unnamed supporters in numerous countries.
"With the assistance from brothers and sisters in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the US etc."
It is clear he believes his crimes are an act of political warfare, and sanctioned by his 'community'. Much has been made of Breivik's personal failures, his business' collapse, the move back to his mother's home, his years spent playing online video games. But there is no disputing that the dense, intense manifesto spent time and energy, and was part of a process that took the young Norwegian from anonymous and unemployed to violent terrorist — perpetrator of the most devastating attack on Norway since World War II.
When we see the differences and use them to identify and remember those around us, the follow-on can be that we will align with our preferred group (usually the one that most resembles us).
But, to build a prejudice, that identification must be matched with negative ideas about the "others" constructed. So the mind must both identify the differences and view them as negative and threatening.
Professor Lenore Manderson, an anthropologist from Monash University in Melbourne, says that threat often comes in the form of jealousy about economic advantage, real or perceived.
"What contemporary racism does is see particular people who are not suffering as much and then interpret their success as balanced against [your] losses and that breeds racism," she says.
"You look for them very close by usually. An extremist such as Breivik sees a whole group, but if you look at Australian racism it's really the people in the same street as you that you become hostile towards."
Breivik is certainly threatened by "others", in his case Muslim immigrants, and the promotion of multicultural policies by successive Norwegian governments, who he views as complicit in allowing the Muslim "other" to gain the numbers to become the dominant and controlling group in Norwegian society. That is his great motivator; that Breivik's white Christian Europe might one day disappear, and his 'natural' supremacy, the dominance of his cultural group, might go with it.
Like a child with the biggest slice of cake: do not disturb the hierarchy of power, for I will not lightly cede what I believe I deserve.
Still, it does not explain how someone could take those ideas and use them to justify the murder of 77 people in two violent and methodical attacks. But, perhaps searching for rational answers to that question is what leads us inevitably to the idea that Breivik must be mad, not bad.
"To believe it's your duty to kill all [of another group of people] you have to have stereotypes of who the other is, and one of the easiest ways is through dehumanising — we call it dehumanising the other — and one way we try to combat prejudice is to help people get an image of the other in real terms… to get that notion of seeing the other as a human person and not as an enemy as such," Heather Gridley says.
"There's a lot of outside factors. Some theories talk about contact between groups that mitigate that, but if your contact has been negative in some way you might then leap to that's what they're all like. [But] that theory of context making things better doesn't always work."
Gridley says the move from a homogenous society to a multicultural one can breed either greater tolerance or more hostility.
"If you look at Norway there's been a lot of immigration and some people are less used to immigration… that kind of contact where it becomes much more normal makes it a lot easier to break things down."
But in Breivik's case we know he went the other way. Does that make him psychotic?
The first response is always to imagine that the perpetrator of such crimes must be insane. Not in control. Sick. But that's a supposition that Breivik is strenuously fighting. He is almost desperate to be ruled sane, out of fear that mental impairment would in some way ameliorate the impact of his actions. A political attack must be remembered as a political act, not the lone travesty of a rogue madman.
Lenore Manderson says it is hard to see Breivik's actions as anything other than psychotic, but that it is possible that he is sane.
"We accept that Hitler wasn't mad and we accept that other people who have murdered millions, such as Pol Pot, are simply evil. And maybe that's the distinction. Rather than being psychotic, Anders Breivik is exceptionally evil and outside the understanding of how most people operate," she told The Global Mail.
"You do have a group of people who have been so twisted by their ideology and I guess it's a question of law — is a person who is like that, because of an ideology that they've largely invented themselves, mad or not? The law clearly chooses to treat people who under ordinary circumstances might be regarded as mad as evil instead and therefore punishes them in a way that's appropriate."
And why must he be mad? We may not understand or endorse his course of action, but the evidence shows Breivik planned it meticulously, carried it out methodically, and now, in full glare of a seething public, he dissects it clinically. He understands the gravity. He comprehends the impact. But he does not mourn the outcome.
Manderson says Breivik knows his actions will be viewed differently if the law decides he is insane.
"What he's trying to do in his own mind is to not discredit his ideology of hate… If you say the man's mad, then you dismiss his actions as the work of a madman," she says.
So if he's not mad how does the human mind begin to conceive of such violence?
"He's clearly been able to build a whole narrative around his actions that's self-justifying. And that's one of the other things that happens, once people adopt a certain kind of prejudice about anything, it's not hard for them to link information that confirms it," Gridley says.
Race and religion — the root of Breivik's anxiety — have been flashpoints for centuries. Difference has been used for hundreds of thousands of years to oppress, malign and scaremonger about the "other". Sometimes as a way of protecting the position of one group in society, sometimes out of insecurity and fear.
"Most people who are racist will never go to the lengths that Breivik did, or be in general so extreme. Other people commit everyday violence through speech or other actions," Manderson says.
"He mounted his own whole philosophy around a perception not even of race but of anybody who he perceived to be in any way sympathetic to Muslims. You can only compare someone like that with the Oklahoma bomber or other kinds of mass murderers.
"He was different from ordinary racism and his ideology served a purpose of propelling him."
Heather Gridley comes to the same conclusions:
"He's not going to break down. Others might look at what they've done and feel ashamed and have a change in their views... He's clearly developed a very — almost impregnable — set of attitudes that he can justify in any set of circumstances, [and]whether that amounts to madness or not is the $64,000 question."
And maybe, he is just bad and there is no rational explanation for it.