Fantasy Warriors Strike Again

Independent, Tuesday 26 July 2011

One of the most disconcerting things about Friday’s mass murders in Norway is the physical appearance of the man arrested in connection with the killings. Posing for a photograph in a wetsuit, Anders Behring Breivik looks like a male model in a survivalist catalogue, while a picture of him in a Freemason’s apron makes him appear frankly ridiculous. Since he surrendered, a picture has emerged of Breivik as a verbose, paranoid, self-glorifying fantasist. Possible links with right-wing extremists in Norway and elsewhere are being investigated, including his claim to have had discussions with members of the English Defence League, but his enemies include a vast array of people, organisations and ideologies. They’re identified in a rambling 1500-page manifesto and include Muslims, Marxists, multi-culturalists and ‘radical feminists’ who have apparently almost completed ‘the feminisation of European culture’.

Breivik’s manifesto isn’t even original, borrowing heavily from the writings of Ted Kaczynski, the convicted American terrorist known as the Unabomber, while his obsession with the Knights Templar is wearily familiar. This order of crusader-monks has fuelled countless conspiracy theories down the ages, receiving a boost when it appeared in Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code; the novel has created a tedious literary industry based around the crusades and the holy grail, but Breivik’s interest in the period is more sinister. He claims to have re-founded the Knights Templar in London in 2002 and styles himself a ‘justiciar knight commander’ and one of the leaders of the ‘National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement’.

If it weren’t for our knowledge of the atrocities carried out by the author of this nonsense, it would be hard to read it with a straight face. Breivik is a body builder who plays ‘quest’ computer games and trawls the internet, where he seems to have made almost random connections with right-wingers and nationalists, including Serbs who fought against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. The people he admires seem to include Vlad the Impaler, who died fighting the Ottoman Turks near Bucharest in 1476.

There is no doubt that far right organisations exist in Scandinavian countries, or that they have been responsible for political violence in the past. Before he became famous as the author of the Millennium trilogy, the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson dedicated his career to tracking right-wing extremists; the best-selling Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo has written about the sensitive subject of collaboration during the German occupation of Norway, and the threat from neo-Nazis is often a theme in Nordic crime novels.

Breivik rants against Muslims, appearing to harbour a conviction that just about every organisation from the EU to the BBC is an Islamist front. But what emerges most strongly from his incoherent ideology is that he belongs to a breed of young European men with massive chips on their shoulder and a pitiless disregard for the suffering of other people. Two days ago, Breivik’s lawyer revealed that his client wanted to wear uniform for his first court appearance, although he added: ‘I don’t know what uniform’. Breivik isn’t a soldier and he appears to have made his own version of an officer’s uniform to wear in photographs, covering the jacket in gold braid and medals. This secret (at least until last weekend) warrior identity is evidently very important to him, even though it appears to be far removed from his humdrum everyday existence.

There are parallels here with other young men who feel alienated from the modern European cultures they inhabit, notably the 7/7 bombers who caused carnage on London’s transport network in 2005. The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was just two years younger than Breivik at the time of his death. In a ‘martyrdom’ video made before he bombed a Circle Line train at Edgware Road, 30-year-old Khan wound a Palestinian scarf around his head and declared: ‘We are at war and I am a soldier’. A second tape, made by Shahzad Tanweer and released on the first anniversary of the suicide bombings, was entitled ‘The Final Message of the Knights of the London Raid’. In it, 22-year-old Tanweer blamed the British people for the attacks: ‘You have openly declared war on Islam, and are the forerunners in the crusade against the Muslims’.

Their aims are utterly opposed but it’s undeniable that there are similarities between the bellicose vocabulary of the 7/7 bombers and Anders Breivik. These are young men without military backgrounds who fantasise about being soldiers, bigging themselves up in videos and photographs, but they’re really armchair warriors who launch indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians. Re-fighting conflicts that date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they appropriate historical figures and the language of the crusades in an attempt to justify mass murder. The lack of contrition on both sides is horrifying.

Obviously it’s important to establish the extent of Breivik’s contacts with right-wing groups, just as we need to know how many young men in Western Europe have been encouraged to embrace violence by Muslim clerics. But restlessness and insecurity play a role in making violence attractive to young men who haven’t found a place for themselves in the modern world, sending them in search of simplistic masculine identities. The narcissistic rewards of terrorism have been under-explored in this context but the wealth of material posted online by Breivik before his rampage means the subject can no longer be ignored.

‘Tested gear. Exhausted!!! Good workout though. I’m drinking 4 X protein shakes per day now to maximize muscle generation’, the aspiring mass murderer wrote four days before the attacks. The sheer banality of terrorism has seldom been so vividly exposed.

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