Posts Tagged ‘Anders Behring Breivik’

Anders Behring Breivik: the “victim of nobody”

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I remember reading about the Norway massacres as the story unfolded on Twitter last July.  First suspicion focused on Islamic terrorist groups that had (it was supposed) made good on their stated threats. Then the drift of the tweets began to turn, like a river rounding a bend, toward a different perp. Finally the murderer had a name, and it was someone unknown, a misfit named Anders Behring Breivik.  I wrote about it here, wondering if, perhaps, Breivik wasn’t insane after all, as so many had immediately assumed:

Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit.  Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit.  As [Jean-Marie] Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas.

A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one.  Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity.  It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence.  Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.

Someone else has picked up on the René Girard theme. Anthropologist Mark Anspach at Imitatio (the foundation launched to promote and study René’s ideas) describes Breivik as “a hopeless nebbish,” yet a dangerous one: “being taken for a nobody filled him with murderous rage. He was bent on venting that rage in a way that would make people finally remember his name.” Anspach discussed what we’ve learned from the recently released police tapes, after Breivik telephoned the police following his first round of murders.

The call began smoothly enough. “Hello,” he said, “my name is Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian Anti-Communist Resistance. I am in Utoeya at the moment. I want to hand myself in.” Clearly, he had rehearsed those words many times and managed to recite them with only a slight catch in his voice.

Camus's antihero gets another look

But the policeman didn’t stick to the script in Breivik’s head. He asked a question that stumped the self-styled resistance commander. “What number are you calling from?”

Breivik was using a phone he had picked up off the ground. He had no idea what number he was calling from. Like a pupil caught unprepared by a pop quiz, he tried to finesse the question. “I am calling from a cell phone,” he said.

But the policeman wouldn’t let him off so easily. “You’re calling from your cell…?”

“It’s not mine,” Breivik explained helplessly. “It’s another phone.” The conversation must have bewildered him. Why did it matter what phone he was using when he had just mowed down scores of young people with an automatic weapon?

Didn’t the policeman understand that he, Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian Anti-Communist Resistance, had just carried off the biggest terrorist operation in his country’s postwar history?

The policeman’s next question was crushing. “What was your name again?”

That was the last straw. Breivik hung up and went back to killing unarmed civilians.

Anspach says that with the dissolution of traditional bonds of families and communities, some fall through the cracks: “They are the victims of nobody in particular and of everybody in general,” he says.  Anspach cites French-Canadian philosopher Paul Dumouchel‘s recent book, Le Sacrifice inutile,  which calls this new class of people “victims of nobody, individuals against whom no one has committed any offense.” According to Dumouchel, they are “the victims of generalized indifference. An indifference that must not be construed as a psychological disposition of certain agents, but as a new institutional arrangement.”

Anspach also cites René’s discussion of Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger in his essay, “Camus’s Stranger Retried,” in which René argues that the antihero “prefers to be persecuted rather than ignored.”

Read the rest here. It’s fascinating.


Anders Behring Breivik: Maybe he’s not insane

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Copycat crimes

Anders Behring Breivik has left behind a screed,  and large parts of it appear to be lifted from another screed, penned by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Over a year ago, I interviewed Jean-Marie Apostolidès, the French literary scholar who befriended Kaczynski, at his lawyer’s request. Apostolidès also has a background as a psychologist.  He insists that Kaczynski is not insane.

I wrote then:

The translation of Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, which Apostolidès began the day after he read it in the Washington Post, was the first step in a longer journey. The next began with a secret.

“In the past, I was in a certain way tied to a secret that I think has no more value,” he explained. Shortly after the arrest, Apostolidès was approached by Kaczynski’s team of lawyers, who said they were concerned for the prisoner’s sanity and well-being in prison.

The Unabomber ... in Berkeley days

“They thought I would be a perfect penpal,” he said. Apostolidès was told to keep the correspondence secret even from his family. Thus began a brief, lopsided correspondence screened by Kaczynski’s lawyers and the FBI.

The brief correspondence did not go smoothly: “He did not want to talk to me; he wanted to preach. I detest that,” he said. “On one side he was scolding me, on the other side complimenting me.”

In retrospect, Apostolidès thinks the lawyers wanted him to help certify Kaczynski was insane. Yet, he said, “I’m convinced he has neurotic problems – but no more than anyone else. He has to be judged on his ideas and his deeds.” Our insistence on his insanity may be a way to avoid grappling with that, he said.

In an interview, Apostolidès leaned forward across the desk in his campus office and his voice dropped: “This will shock you. He’s a very nice guy, sweet, open-minded. And I know he has blood on his hands. You cannot be all bad – even if you kill, even Hitler.”

We would like our villains to be 100 percent evil, psychotic Snidely Whiplashes counting money in the backroom. (Look at the outcry at the portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall.) We are uncomfortable when they look even a little bit like us, but such ambiguity is the stuff of life, said Apostolidès.

The most obvious ambiguity may be centered within Apostolidès himself. He admits he has a longstanding interest in avant-garde ideas – but he writes about radical thoughts from the safe perch of a university professorship and his comfortable home on the Stanford campus. In short, as a part of the petite bourgeoisie Kaczynski despises.

Kaczynski’s manifesto argues that the leftist liberals who present themselves as rebels are, in fact, obedient servants of the dominant society – a symptom of “oversocialization.” He singles out “university intellectuals” as prime examples.

Apostolidès, who says he wouldn’t kill a fly, finds the criticism “absolutely appropriate.”

Right again, René

We have our little boxes for people.  “Christian fundamentalist” – although Breivik insists in his own screed that he’s not religious (“Although I am not a religious person myself, I am usually in favor of a revitalization of Christianity in Europe” p. 676) .  “Psychopath,” though he has no criminal record, and his former stepmother describes him as a nice guy.

Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit.  Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit.  As Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas.

A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one.  Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity.  It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence.  Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.

Postscript on 7/27: Thanks to Morgan Meis of 3quarksdaily for the mention today.

Orwell Watch #15, #14, #13: Jens Stoltenberg’s graceful words, a few of our graceless ones

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

In a shocking time, after horrific events, words rush to mind: “unspeakable,” though we speak about what’s happened nonstop; “unimaginable,” though we are imagining the atrocity at that very moment, with the help of CNN and Youtube.  Inevitably, prefabricated words and phrases leap into the reeling sense of chaos – “tragedy” is often repeated ad nauseum, though the very function of the dramatic form is precisely to bring order and sense to chaos.

But we warned about this misleading, commonplace phrase earlier: From the New York Times (and, really, just about everywhere else, too): “A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.

Since the crime appears to have been perpetrated by a lone nutter, Anders Behring Breivik, the Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami group’s desire to assume responsibility for the attack is cheering. Will they be coming to Norway to help nurse the victims, console families, and rebuild gutted buildings?  No? … well… we thought not.

Terrorism, of course, is rife with its own clichés. “Helpers of the Global Jihad”?  Please.  Within minutes of the announcement, twitterer @billmurphy responded: “‘Helpers of the Global Jihad’ is the worst name for a terrorist group ever.”  Helpers of the Global Jihad? … Sounds so familiar and cozy – “We aim to please.”

Untheatrical and persuasive

Speaking of terrorism, the murderer appears to have been a member of the far-right “Progress Party.”  A few months back, the Book Haven questioned the rebranding of Democrats under the self-congratulatory term, “progressives,” and received a few verbal punches.  But now do you see what we mean?  Any group can insist that it represents “progress” – broadly construed to mean the way someone imagines the future to be headed – and hijack the term to make itself sound like hot stuff.  The term “progress” merely signifies an opinion, not an agenda.

The remarks of Norway’s Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, a bespectacled former journalist, on the occasion of this atrocity have been bracing and graceful:

You will not destroy us,” the prime minister said. “You will not destroy our democracy, or our commitment to a better world.

We are a small country nation, but a proud nation. No one shall bomb us to silence, no one shall shoot us to silence, no one shall scare us out of being Norway.

As one Youtube one commenter put it, it’s “how you run a country humanely.”  His comments are all the more striking  given Stoltenberg’s implacable ordinariness, his utter lack of stage presence and rhetorical flourish on this occasion.

However another of his comments “our answer is more democracy” raises questions.  More democracy?  Why? Have they been holding back?  Will they respond with more voter registration drives? Let’s hope it was a crummy translation.

Postscript on 7/24:  Parden has written to offer a reasonable explanation: “‘Mer demokrati’ as was here translated into ‘more democracy,’ can (and in this instance probably should) be translated as ‘continued democracy.'”


Can the shopworn superlatives, please.

Meanwhile, over at the Chicago Tribune, Artur Plotnik draws the line:

In the event the Cubs win the pennant some day, Arthur Plotnik has a string of superlatives at the ready. Ascendant. Dumbstriking. Festal. Gobsmacking. Both-barrels brain-blasting.

Notably absent from his list? Awesome.

Plotnik, more language fan than sports fan, is on a mission. He couldn’t care less whether the Cubs proceed to the World Series, frankly. He just wants to shake things up, word-wise. “I’m trying to destroy ‘awesome’ and have everyone saying ‘transcendent.’
“Our superlatives are so bleached out,” says Plotnik, author of Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (Viva Editions). “They have no force, no delight, no expressiveness—unless you add an intensifier, most of which are just as worn out: Really awesome.”

Good luck to him.  He notes a curiosity I observed some time ago:  “We have no problem with our exuberance of the negative, as you can find on every thread on every news story, where each poster outdoes the previous in snark and negativity,” he says.

According to his websiteHis recent Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style (Random House) is among the best-selling recent titles on language and writing. Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, called it “A must for every writer’s desk.”


And as a followup to our earlier post, David Meadvin of Inkwell Strategies’ much-awaited sequel to “Words That Make Us Cringe.”  You can check it out here, but we give out our own prize:

“Outside the Box” The fastest way to earn a place on the cringe-worthy hall of shame is with corporate catchphrases.  Last week, we singled out paradigm; this week “outside the box” earns our jeers.  Where is this box? Why is it so difficult and noteworthy to emerge from it? As we all know, the term refers to clever thinking and new ideas.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the words used to describe creativity weren’t so appallingly uncreative?

David ends with a pledge:  “The internet is filled with sites devoted to identifying misuse of quotation marks, and apostrophes.  A pair of self-styled grammar vigilantes has even been traversing the country in pursuit of grammar mistakes on signs.  Identifying inappropriate, overused words and phrases is admittedly tougher, because they don’t violate any specific grammar rules.  They do, however, violate our sensibilities.  And as such, we’ll continue working to root them out.”

Stay tuned.  Meanwhile, let’s end with a few moving words from Norway: