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.