There are no lessons to learn from Mr Breivik

I venture to disagree with the view expressed on LabourList by Claude Moraes MEP that there are significant lessons to be learned from the horrific mass murders committed, by his own admission, by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.   I see no useful or practical lessons whatever to be learned from these events.   They tell us absolutely nothing that we didn’t already know.

Mr Moraes argues that

… far-right violence is more commonplace in the form of racist attacks and intimidation than is reported, and it is … on the increase… such violence is seen as unpalatable but often carried out by thugs and loners, and is too often subtly excused ‘as a cry for help’…  far-right extremism is so accepted in some European countries, that the extremes incited by elected politicians no longer attract surprise or condemnation…  governments, police and intelligence services must also take far-right hate sites much more seriously…  we should be aware that in the past two years there have been compelling international intelligence warnings of potential far-right atrocities…

concluding that

It is essential that Europe learns lessons as a result of this tragedy. It will be a mistake simply to see this as the act of an ‘insane fundamentalist loner’. Instead, far-right extremism, including the growth of violent organisations like the EDL here in the UK, has a disproportionate effect on many European societies, in Scandinavia, Western, Central and Eastern Europe alike. And it is likely the assorted groups on the extreme right in Europe will condemn this atrocity. It is up to us to understand how violence, on whatever scale, is at the heart of these far-right groups.

I have offered the following comment in reply:

I’m afraid that I don’t agree. I don’t believe that there are any useful or practical lessons to be learned from the Norwegian tragedy. The murderer is pretty clearly unhinged and out of touch with reality. It’s really nothing to do with his right-wing political views, whatever he might say to the contrary. He might just as well have excused his violent behaviour by reference to his membership of some left-wing Maoist revolutionary group. If the murders had turned out to be the work of a crazed Muslim fundamentalist from Bangladesh, would Claude Moraes now be writing that we should treat the episode as a wake-up call and a warning to take the threat of violence by Muslims far more seriously? I take leave to doubt it.

In any case, what precisely is the lesson that Mr Moraes thinks we should learn from the actions of Anders Behring Breivik?  We already know about the violent proclivities of far right groups, without the need for Mr Breivik to tell us about them. Our security services already monitor them, to the extent that resources allow, for signs of criminal behaviour. Are we to ban these groups, or criminalise the expression of unpalatable political opinions? Advocating or practising violence is already a crime. The legacy of New Labour’s record on anti-terrorism legislation is already a threat to our civil liberties, urgently in need of radical revision and reduction. We should not be stampeded by the actions of a lone madman in Norway into making yet more inroads into our freedoms of expression and association.

In the end there’s no way to provide 100% protection against the risk of a deranged individual running amok with a gun or a bomb. The Norwegians may decide to tighten up their gun control laws, but ours are already pretty tight. The security services can’t keep a 24-hour watch on every eccentric or weirdo with barmy political views who might quite possibly snap one day and go out and murder a few dozen school-children. It’s just one of numerous risks we simply have to live with.


3 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    A very balance, sane response, Brian: thank you. We need rather more sanity and a little less hysteria if we are to survive as a complex society.

  2. Chris Norman says:

    I simply cannot agree with your response. There is a lot to be learned from far-right extremism on the European continent.

    A contributor to the CIF section of the Guardian website expressed his view very well, I think:

    I do not take leave to doubt it.

    Here are just two cases of far-right extremism in Slovakia, where I live:ý

    Unfortunately, it seems that security services are not monitoring adherents of this ideology to a high enough degree. Maybe the problem is that people tend to perceive terrorist organisations as possessing tightly-knit, centralised structures. However, their very nature renders this impossible; rather, they exist to provide inspiration for unhinged individuals such as Breivik, and the unidentified attackers of people like Tupý and Malina.

    In short, it would be a shame if your otherwise-excellent blog were to ignore the very real threat of right-wing extremism in Europe.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I think you have misunderstood my argument. I am not suggesting that the threat of right-wing extremism in Europe is unimportant or that it does not exist. I am saying that the murder of nearly 100 innocent people by Mr Breivik in Norway tells us absolutely nothing about right-wing extremism, or about anything else apart from the disturbed state of his mind. There are many examples of multiple murders by crazy people in many widely differing countries and cultures, and the murderers frequently claim that their insane acts are justified by reference to their extreme right-wing, left-wing, Islamist, Christian, Sikh and many other political and religious ideologies. There is no evidence of a causal link between the holding of any of these extreme views and the murders very occasionally committed by madmen (hardly ever women). It is inherently inadmissible, even dishonest, to try to exploit individual occurrences such as the tragic events in Norway in order to demand action against those holding opinions with which one personally disagrees or regards as abhorrent, even if they are.

    I apologise for the delay in approving this comment for Ephems.

  3. There are probably many thousands of people in any European country who espouse views of one sort or other which the vast majority of people in each country would condemn as extreme and dangerous.

    Of those thousands of extremists, only a v small proportion decide to do anything violent to further their odious opinions. Of those who do so decide, only a tiny fraction then in fact do anything violent.

    Of that tiny fraction, some will organise themselves in groups and maybe do enough to be headed off by local police forces and/or informers. But some loners may act alone in a more or less deranged way.

    Which by the laws of numbers bring us down to very tiny numbers indeed of people who do the sort of insane thing this Norwegian did. Of the several billion people on the planet going about their business, he was the only one randomly killing people that day.

    No society can hope to intercept every lunatic. ‘More’ might be done to monitor extreme supposedly right-wing groups (many of which turn out to have zany national socialist ideas), extreme Marxist/anarchist left-wing groups and extreme Islamist groups.  But ‘more’ can never be ‘enough’ to stop this sort of thing

    So Brian is dead right. Sometimes the lunatics from one or other lunatic tendency manage to do real harm.  That’s a risk we have to take for living in a free society. Traffic accidents and falling down stairs will kill/maim far more people every year anyway, and we live (or not) with that depressing reality. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Charles. You put it extremely well. Whenever there’s a dramatic tragedy such as the Breivik murders in Norway, our politicians can’t resist the temptation to say that “lessons must be learned” and that “something must be done” to ensure that such a thing “never happens again”, an inherently fatuous ambition. We heard the same thing from the pols after the recent rioting and looting, from which in that case there were indeed lessons to be learned (although not those suggested by Messrs Cameron and Blair): but ministers were also reciting the mantra about ensuring that it would never happen again, which is a little like saying that action must be taken to ensure that the sun will not rise tomorrow morning or ever again.