The European McVeigh, and His Wider Significance (or Lack Thereof)

May 12, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik is now on trial for his massacre.  It’s a trial that on the whole says wonderful things about Norway, while also underscoring the very real, very gruesome, very powerful effects perception can have, especially vis a vis cultural or transnational issues.   What truth is there in Breivik’s claim that he is but one member of a large anti-Muslim movement lurking on the fringes of European society?

Amidst the discussions of high finance and international political economic reform in the Eurozone, the issues of multiculturalism’s track record, the integration of the continent’s immigrant and immigrant descendant Muslims, and beyond that of how a supra-organization of nation-states negotiates cultural identity in the 21st century were not given the attention that they should have received.   The massacre (not “the tragedy”; there is little about a one-man targeted killing spree which implies a random act of divine will or natural disaster) , while something Breivik alone is culpable for,  put these issues back in the forefront of European and US attention.

Whether or not the specific group the Knights Templar exists, a very chillingly nuanced argument has been made by some of the psychiatrists who have looked at Breivik’s case: it isn’t technically a delusion if other people share it.  And we do know that Breivik, although singular in his tactics, is not alone in his beliefs.   The right-wing backlash is almost as  old as the waves of predominantly Turkish and North Africa immigration themselves.

The nature of that backlash may be obscured by the justifiably intense emotions surrounding the massacre, so it is worth clarifying: Breivik is NOT trying to ignite a religious war in Europe motivated by anything close to purely doctrinal differences.   When he, a lapsed Lutheran rather indifferent to the moral or theological basis of Christianity, declares his allegiance to something called the Knights Templar and his ideology to be anti-Muslim, he really refers to socio-cultural categories marking in-group vs. out-group.   “Muslims” with their foreign customs threaten the cultural purity of Europe.  It is more or less the case that with this ideology, any out-group would do as a scapegoat.  Muslims are a wise choice, though, for both their contemporary and historical salience to the European imagination.

The historical nature of what Breivik wants to achieve, however, is vividly invoked by the use of “Knights Templar”:  a vastly less socially, economically, politically, linguistically complicated Europe, united in a gloriously honorable quest to re-secure the symbol of its common cultural heritage from them, who are heathens because they are the Other as much as they are the Other because they are heathens.

Europe as a whole has not gone crazy, or returned to war with itself.  But if and when we say Breivik should receive full time psychiatric care, we — Europeans and Americans — should keep in mind that he is not quite the singular actor that we want or need him to be.

 

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