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Anders Breivik: the story no one wanted to tell
Robert Fox: An Islamist plot was so much more convenient for today’s narcissistic media
From the first, the British media, the broadcasters in particular, have had a great deal of difficulty in reporting the foreground and the background to Anders Behring Breivik’s mass murder spree in Oslo and Utoya island last Friday.
Even on the hard news bulletins, they rushed to judgment before fully and forensically investigating the facts.
By chance, on Friday night I had been invited to do the two newspaper reviews on Sky News. The full extent of the carnage caused by the bombing in the centre of Oslo and out on the island was only just becoming known from reports on the ground.
But still the questions were who and why? Only at around midnight was the name of the prime suspect, Breivik, announced. But already the news channels were full of speculation as to what had happened.
For several hours the tide was following in favour of some further outrage by Islamist militants, branches of al-Qaeda even, as if Osama bin Laden’s spectre had risen from his watery grave. ‘Norway’s 9/11’ barked the headline on the Sun‘s first edition.
It seemed that commentators started shifting from the Islamist theme with the greatest reluctance.
My co-reviewer of the papers at 10.30 pm that night on Sky, the Republican commentator and law professor Colleen Graffy, a former member of the George W Bush administration, even suggested that the fact that the perpetrator was a “blonde Norwegian male” – the only description we had at the time – could mean that the Islamist terrorists had moved to “a new level” by now recruiting native Norwegians.
Then, gingerly, the narrative of the right-wing loner, who liked to dress up in strange uniforms, began to emerge. As the world’s television crews lumbered into Norway, the anchormen and women back home struggled. The BBC, radio and television, hedged their bets.
BBC Radio News bulletins reported a behavioural psychologist saying that the suspect was not mad, as he was talking coherently and had not killed himself – which is what most perpetrators of shooting sprees, especially against children, usually do.
The more this claim for the murder’s sanity was broadcast, the more bizarre it sounded – a piece of explaining away, rather than serious analysis. It was almost as if by modern psychiatric standards, to say nothing of basic social ethics, it was quite understandable to try to blow up Norway’s prime minister in central Oslo and then try to wipe out a teenage holiday camp.
On Monday, Sam Leith in the Evening Standard wrote that Breivik was a mad loner and there was no politics to speak of in what he did and aimed to do. More judicious and nearer the mark was Roger Cohen in the International Herald Tribune yesterday. At one level, he wrote, Breivik appears “a particularly murderous psychotic loner”, but, on the other hand, his violence was brewed in “a specific European environment” which is also manifest in the USA.
In other words there are the elements of the deranged loner, but his motives, programmes and legacy are set in a deep social and political context.
There is much in common in the story so far with the incidents at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, 1992, the destruction of the Waco commune in 1993, the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo underground attack of 1995, and the Oklahoma FBI building bombing that April.
The narratives of all these fed into each other. They were celebrated in underground ballads and manifestos, and their perpetrators became heroes to that audience. The figure of Anders Behring Breivik is sure to be installed in this black Valhalla of extremist anti-heroes, if isn’t already.
So why can’t much of mainstream media tackle this story of our time, the insane act of violence, and the context in which it is set?
First because it is too complex for most broadcast news outfits, whose coin is the 30-second sound-bite, the YouTube blurred image, marinated with instant judgment from the studio, preferably in under a minute. Second, this is a tale of Narcissus – a narcissistic killer reflected in the mirror of a narcissistic media, where performance takes precedence over cool exposition and analysis.
Thus we have the thundering clichés – “Norway losing its innocence” and “this tranquil and most peaceful of all communities”.
The truth is Norway, like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, still has the traumas of the past to contend with – the shadow of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance – as well as the huge recent changes in society, including the sudden impact of new immigration and the new political Islam.
It is also, as Roger Cohen points out, part of the story of western ‘declinism’ – my word not his – that the steam is running out of our once prosperous economy and society.
This has been reported brilliantly by the band of writers known collectively as ‘Scandinavia Noir’ – of which the most celebrated are Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum.
Larsson and Nesbo plied their trade initially as investigative reporters, and the Breivik story could be almost be the plot line of any one of their stories.
The opening chapter of Mankel’s latest and last Inspector Kurt Wallender novel ends with a prescient paragraph. Curiously, it refers to the murder of the prime minister Olof Palme, but it applies just as well to Oslo and our Europe today.
“So it all began with a fit of rage. This story about the realities of politics, this journey into the swamps where truth and lies are indistinguishable and nothing is clear.”