Understanding the Oslo Attacks: “It’s the Violence, Stupid!”

It is very doubtful that Anders Breivik is insane; terrorists very rarely are, because they would not be able to effectively carry out their attacks if they were prone to anxiety, doubt, depression, mania or mental instability. If we want to understand why he chose to commit these horrible acts, we need to look closer to home and consider the central role of violence in our culture, in particular, the almost universally accepted and commonsense idea that violence can sometimes be the right thing to do – that violence can be an effective and legitimate tool to bring about positive political change. It was this widely-shared belief that Anders Breivik was acting on; it is the same belief that our leaders act on when they bomb and invade other countries to try and bring about democracy. It is, in fact, the same belief that drives all forms of political violence, from terrorism to war, humanitarian intervention and capital punishment.

In other words, it is a simplification and a distraction to assume that it was his extremist right-wing ideas or his desire to rid Europe of Muslims that made Anders Breivik commit mass murder in Norway last week. After all, there are probably millions of people across Europe who hold to very similar beliefs without ever considering going out and slaughtering children. These ideological beliefs were merely the justification he used to rationalize his decision to use violence, and the way he strengthened his resolve to act. All violent actors use ideological justifications to justify using extreme violence, such as when politicians claim they have to bomb a country in order to bring about democracy or create greater security. This is a reason for the violence, not its cause.

The fact is: extremist ideology or particular political creeds do not cause violence in the sense commonly meant, nor is violence the direct consequence of any particular set of beliefs. Violence has been committed by, and continues to be committed by, all belief systems and ideologies: fascists, nationalists, communists, socialists, democrats, patriots, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and even humanitarians. People from all these faiths and creeds regularly commit, and almost universally support, certain forms of political violence. At the same time, the fact is that most people who hold to a particular belief system or ideology chose not to use violence and instead to pursue their goals non-violently – although most do support forms of military violence.

The real problem is not ideology or belief therefore, it is violence and the decision to use it. It is the almost universally accepted idea that violence can be an effective and legitimate way to achieve a good political goal, whether it is ending an occupation, ridding the world of a dictator, eliminating a threat to one’s way of life, stopping human rights abuses or resolving conflict. The real problem is the widely accepted belief that killing and injuring thousands of fellow human beings may be a way to do something positive in the world – the idea that violence can be good if it is done in the right way by the right people.

This idea is embedded in our culture and our politics. We give children toy weapons and violent video games to play with, and teach them to kill the ‘bad guys’ for hours at a time. We watch ‘good people’ – cops, vigilantes, soldiers, spies – killing all the ‘bad people’ on television and movies a thousand times a day. We consume violence in comics, novels, songs, cartoons, plays, and a thousand other cultural artifacts without question. Our societies maintain powerful militaries which are almost universally supported and valorized as heroic and necessary. We commemorate and celebrate military victories and military sacrifice in the name of freedom and democracy through regularly held national ceremonies, and in the statues and plaques which adorn every town and church. We have entire economic industries which research and make new weapons by the ton, which we then export all over the globe until you can buy an automatic weapon for a few dollars almost anywhere in the world. And our politicians launch wars and military interventions regularly and without significant opposition to solve their political conflicts or to try and bring about the political goals they want to achieve.

The fact is that we live in a culture of violence, and most of us accept and celebrate violence and agree that violence can often be the right thing to do. The hard truth is that as a society, we love violence; we are addicted to it, especially as entertainment or jobs. Anders Breivik loved it too, as photos showing him holding weapons and dressing up in military style gear reveals. We may try to maintain a separation between ‘good’ kinds of violence and ‘bad’ kinds of violence, but violence is always unjust and bad to its victims: a child killed by a NATO bomb is just as dead and her parents suffer equally to the child killed in the name of a Muslim-free Christian Europe. We may try and devise ways to control when violence is used, who it is used by and how much violence may be applied, but such justifications – just war theories – have failed to control or limit violence for thousands of years. The fact is that we live in the most war-like, aggressive and violent period in human history; within our lifetime, our societies have killed hundreds of millions of people in hundreds of the most vicious and deadly wars in history, and there are dozens of violent conflicts going on right now.

The only possibility for really ending violence and stopping people from using it is to de-legitimise it completely – to make it as abhorrent as slavery and racism now are. If we want some people to stop using violence, we must all stop using it. To do this, we will have to face up to our deep love affair with and acceptance of violence, and try much harder to change our violent culture and our violent politics. We will have to take the philosophy and values of non-violence seriously.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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4 Responses to Understanding the Oslo Attacks: “It’s the Violence, Stupid!”

  1. An excellent post – you raise a number of very interesting issues – thanks.

    However, is violence never justified? How about in self-defence and in a proportionate degree and manner? Surely, if one of the victims of the Anders Brevik had picked up a gun, if available, or a stick and hit him with to prevent him from doing even more killing, that cannot be classified as equivalent to what Brevik was doing – an unjustifiable violent aggression against unarmed civilians? On a larger canvas, is violence such as used by the ANC to resist apartheid unjustified and the ‘same’ as the violnce of the apartheid state?

    And, on non-violence: can it not be argued that the political strategies of the two major exemplars of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, jr., required state or other violence in order for the non-violent to make their moral case?

    I won’t even mention what anyone opposed to nazi aggression in the 1930s and WWII was supposed to do to overcome that particular foe?

    I guess my point is that ‘violence’ needs to be seen in context – why is it being carried out, to what end and purpose, whether defensive or offensive, rather than being condemned as negative, regardless of the circumstances.

  2. Inderjeet, I don’t believe I am necessarily making a moral argument, merely a sociological observation. Violence may be morally justified in some circumstances or contexts, but its practice and legitimation will nonetheless encourage further violence, as some people will always argue that their violence is justified too. That is the cost of trying to legitimise some violence as good and some as bad; it will always be contested which is which. The main point I was trying to make was that it is the commonly accepted belief that good can come from violence which makes all actors take it up as a tool of politics. Of course, the argument that violence is sometimes justified also assumes that alternatives to violence are not available or will produce a worse outcome than violence. I would argue that this assumption needs to be convincingly proved before it is accepted and acted upon. In short, violence may be justified, but can it ever prevent further violence? I believe that only finding the non-violent alternative in every situation can break the cycle of violence begetting more violence.

  3. tb says:

    “The fact is that we live in the most war-like, aggressive and violent period in human history”

    This is absolutely incorrect. Human society was never so peaceful than these days. Proof:


  4. Andy Selby says:

    Yes, violence is at one time or another a part of every belief, political, and social system. What you are saying, however, by holding up violence itself as the true enemy, is that intent cannot be judged. *Intent* is the enemy. Violence is merely an expression on *intent*. This is why non-violence cannot be taken seriously other than an ivory-tower notion to make one feel more noble than another. When an individual *intends* to take the life of/harm another individual, those intentions will ultimately be judged as justified or unjustified. This is why our legal systems can differentiate between cases of murder and self-defense.

    The assumption that all have justifiable intent is the flaw of non-violence. While it is comforting to assume that all of us want the same things (living at peace with others, doing no harm, having love, friends, fulfillment), it is also at the same time naive and ultimately self-defeating. All it takes for someone who holds up the non-violence banner is to be the victim of an unprovoked attack on themselves or a loved one. If one truly believes that it is noble to let a child suffer an attack from a criminal aggressor, truly believes that freedom from tyranny is not something to be grasped, truly believes that their life is not worth fighting for, then whatever befalls them is deservedly theirs.

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