On Friday, a Norwegian court ruled that Anders Behring Breivik, who mowed down 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage in Oslo in July 2011, was sane. It was a verdict that many had waited for, one ensuring that the cold and loveless man who carried out the country’s worst bloodbath since World War II would be held responsible for his actions and not dismissed as a helpless victim of his sick mind.
It was also the verdict that Breivik himself wanted. He loathed the idea of incarceration in a mental facility, a fate he called “worse than death,” and insisted during the 10-week trial that his fertilizer bomb and machine gun were necessary instruments to stop what he viewed as a creeping Muslim takeover of Europe.
The court’s decision was the right one. It comes at a time when heightened anxiety over the presence of Muslims in Europe and the United States has ignited a string of attacks on the faith community. The extreme right-wing ideology from which Breivik emerged has fueled McCarthy-esque witch hunts, mosque burnings and vandalism, and temple shootings. While wildly out of touch with responsible human discourse and seemingly pathological, this climate of hate is hardly the stuff of lunatics. It is a dangerous political reality with destructive consequences.
Statistics show that nearly two decades after the Oklahoma City bombing, right-wing extremism — not Muslim-led terrorism — is a growing threat. According to the Center for American Progress, which consolidated data from multiple sources, since 1995 extremists on the far right have perpetrated 56% of domestic terrorism attacks in the United States. That’s compared with 12% carried out by radical Muslims. The likes of Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Wade Michael Page have been responsible for the majority of terrorist incidents in 13 of the 17 years since the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building crumbled. In that same period, the Southern Policy Law Center has tracked a startling 26% increase in the number of American hate groups. It is their rhetoric that frightens anxious citizens about the alleged menace of minority groups and can push those fears to oft-deadly conclusions.
The Islamophobia that led Breivik to his ruinous binge, for example, came from his digestion of the writings of several anti-Muslim activists, including bloggers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who head the group Stop the Islamization of America. Breivik mentioned them in his 1,500-page manifesto, posted online. The pair has agitated some of the country’s nastiest displays of prejudice. Their bus advertisements equating the Palestinian cause with jihad created a stir in New York and San Francisco, and they fanned the flames of the uproar over the Park51 Islamic Community Center in 2010.
Damningly, they see their mission as Breivik saw his: They call themselves “freedom fighters” on a valorous journey to save the world from Muslims. But when it was publicized that the Norway killer mentioned Spencer and Geller in his writings, they cried foul. “Clearly this individual is insane,” Spencer wrote on his blog. After Breivik’s initial psychological evaluation Geller expressed relief, writing, that Breivik was “declared certifiably insane, which was evident by his actions and his ten-years-in-the-making manifesto.”
The magnitude of Breivik’s butchery was apparently sufficient evidence of his psychosis. No normal person, in Geller and Spencer’s view, would ever do such a thing. But only if that person is not a Muslim. When Muslims engage in violence, they are represented by Islamophobes as ordinary believers acting in a way that aligns with tenets of their faith, not fringe lunatics whose delusional religious interpretations lead them to a monstrous end. Though Spencer and Geller denounced Breivik’s violence, they never rejected his anti-Muslim ideas. And that is a problem.
The Norwegian court’s verdict, which means that Breivik will spend at least 21 years behind bars (and probably much more), underscores the need for society to address those who promote hatred and jabber about the evils of multiculturalism and the looming clash of civilizations. It proves that amplified racism, which carves society into fragments and pits them against one another, has real consequences and reaches the minds of rational thinkers who absorb such narratives and take them to their logical conclusions.
Trying to wish away intolerance and bigotry may be convenient but it is costly. During Breivik’s trial, a right-wing extremist testified that he knew of nearly 100 other people who share the killer’s views and supported his massacre.
Chillingly, this month Czech police raided the apartment of and arrested one such apparent supporter. They discovered a bomb, automatic weapons, police uniforms, a detonator and 400 rounds of ammunition.
The discourse of hate must be stopped before it affects other extremists quietly waiting for an opportunity to be lauded as heroes.
Nathan Lean is editor in chief of AslanMedia.com. He is the author of The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims.