The identification of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as a self-proclaimed right-wing Christian extremist poses two uncomfortable challenges to conservative activists and advocates in America.
First, many commentators leaped to the prompt conclusion that the vicious Friday attacks in Oslo represented the work of Muslim extremists. Following a phony claim of credit by a little-known Islamist group called “Helpers of Global Jihad,” initial discussion of the appalling incident (like the weekend editorial in The Wall Street Journal or my own nationally broadcast radio remarks on Friday afternoon) placed it squarely in the context of jihadist violence. We were all wrong, obviously, which raises the question of whether we are generally wrong to focus counterterror efforts on Muslim radicals and to label Islam as distinctively vulnerable to terrorist temptations.
Second, Breivik’s outspoken embrace of common themes from the international right (his 1,500-page “manifesto” rails against socialism, multiculturalism, and Muslim immigration) will be used to reinforce leftist claims that conservative ideas post a direct danger to democratic values. The meticulous murderer boasted no personal connection to American Tea Party activists, or even to Norway’s hardline Progress Party (which he abandoned five years ago as hopelessly moderate and mainstream), but doesn’t his association with rightist ideas discredit religious conservatives everywhere, just as al Qaeda's atrocities stain all of Islam?
On the first point, the instinctive association of any horrendous terror attack with Muslim radicals stems from knowledge of recent history, not from irrational bigotry. The Oslo episode represents the bloodiest non-Muslim terrorist assault in the 16 years since Oklahoma City; in that same period of time, monitoring organizations have identified more than 3,000 Islamic attacks with multiple civilian casualties, often in unexpected locations like Thailand, India, and the Philippines, producing few headlines but many corpses.
With the Irish Republican Army definitively renouncing violence in the 1990s, and the Tamil Tigers effectively crushed by the government of Sri Lanka in 2009, radical Islamic groups (Hizbullah, the Taliban, Hamas, as well as local Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere) remain the only prominent and potent terror organizations in the world. Yes, the Oslo events will encourage authorities in Europe and elsewhere to focus new attention on right-wing fanatics like Breivik, but security personnel will no doubt continue the appropriate policy of devoting the majority of their efforts to foiling plots by well-funded, often well-trained jihadist killers.
As to the possibility that Breivik’s diabolical cruelty will ruin the reputation of conservative nationalists across the globe, this damage will only occur in the unlikely event that rightist groups honor the killer as some sort of hero, or encourage efforts to replicate his crimes. The 9/11 attacks didn’t on their own produce hostility to Islam, but the celebration of those horrors by huge, jubilant crowds in Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority (where authorities handed out candy to mark the occasion), and elsewhere in the Muslim world went a long way toward undermining Islam’s claims as “The Religion of Peace.” As recently as September 11, 2009, a group known as Al Muhajiroun convened a mass rally in London to praise the September 11 terrorists as “the Magnificent 19.”
Breivik has drawn no such tributes, and no recognized Christian religious authorities or organizations will offer tortured justifications for his coldblooded rampage. Attempts to equate the Christian and Islamic propensities toward violence inevitably dredge up the shameful carnage of the Crusades and the Inquisition, citing cruelty from 1,000 and 500 years ago, respectively—a powerful indication of the extreme rarity of current violent episodes in the name of Christ.
Moreover, when such brutality does occur (like the shooting of abortion doctors in Wichita, Kansas, and Buffalo) spiritual leaders of every Christian denomination unite to denounce it, while a noisy minority of Muslim sages and scholars continue to promote and glorify suicidal terror on behalf of the Koran. A recent opinion poll in Egypt (recipient of more than $60 billion in U.S. aid) showed that the late, lamented terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden drew a higher approval rating than the American president, Barack Obama.
The universal condemnation of the Oslo rampage does nothing to mitigate the profound evil of its premeditated and pointless slaughter—an evil that exposes the illogical fatuity in the recent mania for “hate crimes” laws in the United States. Breivik makes clear in his writings his profound hatred for Muslim immigrants, but did he commit an official hate crime if most of his targets were non-Muslims and non-immigrants? And what difference would it make to his victims or their families if investigators determine that he was motivated by rage against the world in general, rather than hostility toward one or another explicitly protected group? The nature of his actions defines the evil of Breivik’s crimes, not the warped thinking that led to them. No details in his ideology or attitudes can reasonably amplify or diminish his depravity—making a mockery of our obsession with defining and punishing “hate crimes” with special measures based upon the inclusion of victims from specified categories.
Finally, the insanity defense will inevitably rear its ugly head when a defense team is up and running with an effort to minimize punishment for the Norwegian monster. Despite reports that Breivik gave scant prior evidence of mental illness, the chilling details of his bombing and shooting spree suggest obvious derangement. A Seattle Times headline, “The Work of a Madman,” summarized conclusions of most reporters and analysts.
Under the circumstances, Norwegians (like observers around the world) will rightly recoil from any attempt to win more sympathetic treatment for the killer based on his troubled mental state. As commonly applied, the insanity defense has never made much sense: A murderer suffering from severe psychiatric problems and consumed by bloody obsessions could well be more, not less, dangerous, and more profoundly evil, than a cool, calculating criminal who kills for personal gain. The standard qualifier for an insanity defense involves an inability to tell right from wrong, or to clearly recognize the guilt associated with your crimes. By that standard history’s most hateful mass killers, Hitler and Stalin, both could have argued that they deserved to escape an ultimate guilty verdict: They both believed that their genocidal policies represented a virtuous service to humanity.
Breivik, currently cooperating with Norwegian police officials, may continue to nourish a similar attitude toward his own actions. This may qualify him as insane, but it hardly makes him less guilty—or less worthy of punishment.
It may be too soon for dispassionate clear thinking on every aspect of the unspeakable attacks on a previously peaceful and prosperous corner of civilization, but observers and analysts of every stripe should avoid all temptation to score cheap political points on the bodies of the fallen, and to make every attempt to place the horror in an honest and balanced perspective.