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Todd Green, Ph.D. Headshot

Norway One Year Later: Are We Any Closer to Understanding This Tragedy?

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One year ago, Muslims across Norway and indeed Europe held their collective breath as news broke of bomb explosions in downtown Oslo and a killing spree on the island of Utøya. They had reason to be concerned. In a post-9/11 world, Muslims are prime suspects whenever reports surface of bombs exploding or guns firing on civilians. In fact, some prominent media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, initially speculated that Muslim terrorists were behind the attacks. As it happened, these reports were wrong, but we were reminded in those initial hours after the story broke that Muslims really are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Here we are one year later, and we certainly know more of the facts behind the tragedy and its real (non-Muslim) perpetrator. But are we in a better place when it comes to understanding what happened in Norway and why? I have my doubts. Sure, plenty of political, legal and psychiatric experts, not to mention numerous journalists, have weighed in on Breivik and Norway, but the composite story that has emerged is not much more nuanced or insightful than what was reported in the first hours after the attacks. Instead of a radical Muslim "outsider," we have an insane Norwegian "insider." The only real debate has been and continues to be what sort of psychosis Breivik suffers from and whether he was experiencing some sort of psychotic episode when he carried out the attacks. This pretty much summarizes the back-and-forth debates between the prosecution and defense in Breivik's trial.

The tendency to dismiss Breivik as a psychopath makes it far more difficult to understand this tragedy much less learn from it. But what is the way forward? Let me offer three suggestions on how we can turn the corner and make some progress in our understanding of the Norway massacre:

1. We must think outside the insanity box. The Breivik trial illustrates just how quick the Western media and other experts are to conclude that horrific crimes committed by a "native" (i.e., white) European and American must be the product of a mentally unstable mind. Long before any in-depth psychiatric examinations had been conducted, the word "insane" was regularly employed to make sense of Breivik's actions. For our purposes here, it doesn't really matter what sort of diagnoses have subsequently been made. The larger point is that the quick move to tell the Breivik story by recourse to mental illness, and the almost exclusive role that Breivik's mental health has played in his criminal trial and the media coverage of it, have ultimately turned the public's attention away from other factors that likely contributed to Breivik's killing spree.

Just as importantly, the amount of energy expended to explain Breivik's deeds as a product of mental illness would never have been poured out on someone with a Muslim background. If a Muslim kills innocent civilians, the assumption is that it is because of Islam. One would be hard-pressed to recall any significant instance in which a major media personality speculated that a Muslim terrorist likely suffered from PTSD or some sort of psychosis. It's almost as if mental illness does not exist among Muslims, whereas the only reason that white, non-Muslim Europeans or Americans would commit heinous crimes is because they are not in control of their mental faculties (and therefore are not as culpable for their crimes as Muslim terrorists).

2. We must take more seriously the threat posed by the far right. Once we raise the possibility that insanity is not the only possible explanation for Breivik's murderous rampage, we are better able to consider other explanations that have largely been kept off the table, including politics and religion. Concerning the former, Breivik may not have been part of a coordinated right-wing plot, but his views were very much informed by far right politicians and activists on both sides of the Atlantic. His manifesto finds inspiration in figures such as Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders, not to mention radical right political parties and movements. His violent actions were an extension of the far right bigotry and hostility toward Muslims and Islam that has been on the rise in the West.

Of course, hate speech is one thing, violent actions another. The hate groups, bloggers and politicians that Breivik read and learned from are not directly responsible for what happened in Norway; technically, they didn't pull the trigger. But their rhetoric feeds and sustains an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance that lays the foundation for these types of crimes. Unfortunately, neither the media nor most politicians have really appreciated the severe threat posed by the far right to peaceful relations between peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds. The obsession with radical Islam has blinded many political and media elites to dangers of the far right. This is a huge mistake, one that keeps the door open for future Breiviks.

3. We must rethink the relationship between religion and violence. In the week that followed the Norway killings, a huge debate arose, particularly in the U.S., over Breivik's religious identity. In his manifesto, Breivik claimed to be participating in a Christian crusade against Muslims and allies of multiculturalism across Europe. He freely drew on Christian Europe's crusading past to inform his present mission. He also acknowledged that he did not embrace many "orthodox" Christian teachings. This generated skepticism early on as to whether he was, in fact, a true Christian. Media pundits like Bill O'Reilly eventually won the day by making the case that Breivik was not a real Christian. At best, he was a cultural Christian. But he certainly was not a genuine follower of Jesus Christ because, as O'Reilly insisted, "[n]o one believing in Jesus commits mass murder."

The fascinating part of this debate was that so much energy was expended on excommunicating Breivik from the Christian fold, and yet in the end, it really didn't matter. The label of "Christian terrorist" never had a serious chance of sticking. It just doesn't have that natural ring to it in the ears of Westerners like the phrase "Islamic terrorism." This is probably one of the reasons why most news reports stopped taking Breivik's religious identification seriously after a few short weeks.

What really was needed back then (and now) was a deeper conversation on the problematic assumptions so many journalists and politicians make about the relationship between religion and violence and how different standards are applied to individuals with different religious backgrounds. In Breivik's case, Christianity was quickly absolved of any complicity in what happened. Breivik may have identified as a Christian, but his deeds were never seriously considered as representative of Christianity. Had Breivik been a Muslim, the debate would have focused much more on some inherent relationship between Islam and violence, with Breivik serving as a stand-in for all Muslims. This double-standard has not been addressed nearly enough in public discourse of Breivik or those more commonly labeled as Muslim terrorists. Until it is, we will continue to spin our wheels in any discussion about the role that religion does (and does not) play in violence.

We are not where we should be in our understanding of what happened in Norway. The narrative of a deluded, psychotic loner has come to dominate the headlines and the discussions of the massacre and its perpetrator. What we have missed are the other layers to this episode that shed light on why these murders were committed and how we can learn from this event. While it is certainly appropriate to ask questions about Breivik's mental health, this should not shield us from examining his political and religious convictions and their role in the atrocities he committed. By broadening our gaze of this man and this tragedy, we take a step in the right direction of finding a way to prevent history from repeating itself.