To virtually any eye, it is a bizarre spectacle to witness the visible self-satisfaction radiating from the face of a man as he hears his sentence for mass murder. But since Anders Behring Breivik’s trial hinged on the question of his sanity — something about which he seemed to be in no doubt — his conviction is for him a perverse kind of vindication. It represents the failure of the prosecution’s effort to de-politicize Breivik’s crime.
Had the Norwegian been declared insane then his own explanation of the meaning and motivations for his actions would have been rendered meaningless. His theories about the effect of multiculturalism would simply be viewed as the products of a psychotic mind. His connection to polemicists, political activists, and bloggers who promote similar ideas would be treated as somewhat tenuous and their own disavowals would have been lent some extra strength.
But Breivik had an explicit and fully articulated political agenda. And his acts of terrorism were a means to an end: the promotion of his political views.
Paradoxically, counter-terrorism feeds terrorism through its effort to drain the political content from acts of violence.
Bombings and bloodbaths are the most extreme demand to be heard, yet those to whom such demands are directed often think that if the political content of terrorism is acknowledged then this would be a kind of capitulation. It would offer, so the argument goes, an incentive to others who thought that violence is an effective tool for making political demands.
The alternative is to open political debate and instead of trying to treat terrorists as purely criminal or insane, to show that their violence is not an extreme reaction to being silenced; their marginality is a product of their weak minds and the deficiency in their own powers of persuasion.
Breivik was not the victim of political oppression. The journey he traveled from an enthusiastic internet commenter to ruthless bomb-maker was not the result of being muzzled. It was a wild escalation in overstatement.