Gay rights, ethnic minority rights and the rights of heterodox religious communities have grown out of the Enlightenment, the time when tolerance rather than religious dogma, personal reasoning rather than mindless groupthink, were established as key values in European culture. Quests for purity, be they anti-Semite or anti-Islamic, are counterreactions against this central value in European identity. It should be a source of pride, not resentment, that the freedom of religion has been achieved in precisely this part of the world.
The court case against Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 and maimed dozens in two operations on 22 July, began on Monday 16 April. As befits a case of this magnitude, it has raised many concerns in the Norwegian population. Some feel it superfluous to spend about € 15 million on a court case where the defendant is obviously guilty; instead, they say, spend the money on roads and kindergartens. They are wrong. The scale of his crime warrants a thorough trial, not least out of consideration for the victims and their families.
Others have argued that the massive media coverage of the trial - there will be wall-to-wall broadcasts and press reports for ten weeks - is tantamount to giving the terrorist what he wants the most, namely fame and a platform where he can expound his eccentric ideology. They have a point, but ultimately the outcome is likely to be more positive than negative. It is difficult to immagine how a presentation of Breivik's childish and paranoid ideology, on his own terms, can lead to mass conversion. It is far more probable that people who may have been attracted to similar notions of purity regarding race, ethnicity or religion, will be repelled. His fate shows the absurdity of these views and their impossibility in the 21st century. He is a mosquito net for paranoid Islamophobia.
The greatest risk associated with Breivik's trial is the possibility of an exaggerated focus on his person. A major issue discussed in Norway over the last months concerns whether or not he was sufficiently sane to be considered accountable for his actions. The experts differ in their views; indeed, two reports have been commissioned by the authorities, and they reach opposite conclusions on the question of sanity.
In a certain sense, Breivik was doubtless mad. Confronted with the death and suffering he is responsible for, he shows no indication of regret. However, he was visibly moved and began to weep when his homemade YouTube film about his ideological mission was shown during the trial. In other words, he does not lack an emotional register; he is just incapable of feeling anything towards other human beings.
On the other hand, they would have said that about Hitler as well, and probably about many of the war criminals of the Balkans and of Rwanda, but nobody in their right minds would recommend medication rather than punishment for perpetrators of crimes against humanity. It may be added - and this is where the two expert reports differ crucially - that Breivik's paranoid world view is fairly widely shared among people who otherwise function perfectly well - who find their jobs meaningful, are loyal towards their friends and caring towards their spouses and children.
There is no simple answer to the question of how an ordinary, if somewhat unsuccessful young man could turn into such a horrible monster. We are talking about a jigsaw puzzle with at least three elements, all necessary to understand the terrorist attack.
First, Breivik's biography remains important. He grew up in a moderately affluent, staunchly petit-bourgeois part of western Oslo, and the vast majority of his schoolmates went on to take a higher education. He never did. As far as has been ascertained, he never had a regular girlfriend or boyfriend (there have been doubts concerning his sexual orientation, although he naturally claims to be 'completely heterosexual'). His business ventures failed one after the other, and he began to do well economically only when he started selling fake exam certificates. He lived with his mother until he turned 30, a sure sign of failure in Norwegian society, where young people tend to move out after leaving school.
In a word, Breivik perfectly fits the view that right-wing extremists tend to be downwardly mobile people who feel betrayed by 'the system' and seek scapegoats to justify their own failure.
Secondly, Breivik's enthusiasm for online computer games is highly significant and has not been taken sufficiently into account so far. During his shooting spree at Utøya, he was listening to loud music on his iPod, dressed as a heavily armed policeman, like a participant in a multiplayer online game. After about a month in custody, he complained that his 'life force' was down to about ten per cent. He even spoke about having successfully completed two rounds, hoping for a 'bonus round' later. All this reminds us of the fact that Breivik had spent a year or more doing little else than playing online games, notably World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. On his 'mission' at Utøya, he was no longer the flabby loser Anders, but had morphed into his preferred avatar, namely that of an elite commando soldier on a mission to save Western civilization. He even had devised a points system for himself, where he would be awarded a special medal (presumably bought on eBay, like his other decorations) if he succeeded in killing a hundred people.
Add to this a too-literal reading of The Lord of The Rings - Breivik's ideological ally Peder 'Fjordman' Jensen spoke a few months ago of Muslims as 'orcs' - and a picture emerges of a person who behaves as though he were a character, an avatar, in a computer game.
Thirdly, it must not be forgotten that the terrorist attacks were acts of political violence. The targeting of Young Labour (AUF) and government buildings was not random. Breivik held that the ruling Labour Party had betrayed its own people by allowing too many immigrants, especially Muslims, into Norway and by allowing them to practise their religion (which, in his world, means 'not integrating'). Moreover, Breivik believed in secret plans among Muslims to seize political power in Europe eventually, towards which aim the elites of the country - spineless multiculturalists, effeminate relativists to a man (or woman) - were either oblivious or complicit. This is the kind of paranoid Islamophobia often described as 'Eurabia fantasies'. Fanciful stuff, but shared by tens of thousands. On the Web, it is not difficult to find comprehensive websites representing loose networks, NGOs or interest groups, which subscribe to some version of this worldview. A handful of such sites in Norway, sometimes parading as human rights organisations or feminist groups, were decisive to Breivik, who cites them and especially the ideologist 'Fjordman', extensively in the 1500-page compendium known as his 'manifesto'.
The ideology of hatred directed at Muslims and resentment directed at the 'politically correct, multiculturalist elites' is, in a word, fairly widespread. Its danger lies in its lack of recognition for democratic procedures. If it were true, as they claim, that the politicians are lying to us about immigration and Islam in Europe, then those politicians have no legitimacy. This legitimises nondemocratic means, and indirect incitements to violence are far from uncommon on 'Counterjihadist' websites.
And yet, other unsuccessful people ('losers') on the West End, World of Warcraft enthusiasts and even virulent Muslim-haters do not become terrorists. These three jugsaw pieces, thus, do not tell the whole story about Breivik. Pure evil strikes like lightning. It seems to come from nowhere. However, the form of Breivik's violence is better understood if we take these three dimensions into account.
Through his dreadful crimes, Breivik attacked exactly what he believed that he defended, namely European values. Many of those who oppose immigration point out that Christians and atheists are being persecuted in Muslim countries, so why should we tolerate Muslim beliefs and practices here? The answer is that European values condone pluralism. Gay rights, ethnic minority rights and the rights of heterodox religious communities have grown out of the Enlightenment, the time when tolerance rather than religious dogma, personal reasoning rather than mindless groupthink, were established as key values in European culture. Quests for purity, be they anti-Semite or anti-Islamic, are counterreactions against this central value in European identity. It should be a source of pride, not resentment, that the freedom of religion has been achieved in precisely this part of the world.
The 22 July terrorist attacks represented not merely an attack on European values, but an assault on the future. The terrorist attack, and the ideology justifying it, are built around the premise that the contemporary world – that is our interconnected world where mixing and mobility are the order of the day – is an absurdity. They refuse to confront the 21st century head on, but instead lurk in the shadows, awaiting their chance to stab the future in the back. In my book, this is not what it takes to qualify for a bonus round.