“A Significant Signal”: Could Canada breed an Anders Behring Breivik?

In Improbable Mutterings on July 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm

There is a long-standing assumption that terrorism is a criminal or military backlash against forces of oppression: we’re most familiar with the current wave of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that surged to life in the 1990s, which took the bulk of its motivation from the ideological, military, and colonial conflicts in the Middle East. Those conflicts, for better or for worse, feel “real” in part because they have the hallmarks of a recognizable political inequality: tanks, refugee camps, occupations, bus bombings, disputed lands. But domestic terrorism, at least as far as Western democracies are concerned, is a far more complicated and insidious force, and one that removes demonstrable oppression from the equation. Domestic terrorism, like the kind perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik — not likely someone who ever experienced true oppression in his life — is a purely political statement. In his mind, terrorism was a justifiable, preventative act against what he saw as certain historical and demographic inevitabilities.

What crumbling system of ethics could lie at the root of Anders Behring Breivik’s unspeakable acts? If July 22 was a political statement, as is increasingly clear, what conditions enabled his appalling outburst? And could they happen here, in Canada?

Because there was no involvement from “outside” terrorist sources – meaning Islamic ones – Anders Breivik’s actions are frequently compared to Timothy McVeigh’s during the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995. On its face, this comparison has some value. Both were domestic terrorists protesting government policy and law; both targeted government buildings, workers and affiliates; both saw their victims as necessary sacrifices towards a greater political change.

But this comparison breaks down when we look at the intended consequences of these terrorists’ actions. McVeigh, a radical libertarian, wanted to “defend the Constitution” of the United States against Federal and judicial activism, and hypocritical actions (mostly military) abroad. The government’s “treason,” in his mind, was to betray the political principles of individual liberty and freedom that America was founded on. The bombing in Oklahoma City was, in the truest sense of the word, an “internal” matter: a murderous criticism of foreign and domestic policy.

Breivik had no document upon which to base in his plan. The betrayal he believed he saw went down to the very basis of what it meant to be a Norwegian, or even a European. “The operation was not about killing as many as possible, but to provide a significant signal that simply could not be misunderstood,” Breivik said in a recent statement. That signal: “As long as the Labour party maintains their ideological line of politics, whereby they deconstruct Norwegian culture and ‘mass-import’ Muslims, they must be held accountable for treason. One cannot allow one’s country to be colonised by Muslims.” In this respect, his “operation” – a disturbingly clinical term for what happened last Friday – was enormously successful.

McVeigh’s hated America for reasons that only America could solve; Breivik hated Norway for reasons that no country could ever solve.

Anti-immigration is a pernicious belief, if one can even call it a belief. Xenophobia is more often an appropriate label, couched behind niceties of legislation and party. It stretches credibility to imagine how one might ever, in fact, have a society that was “anti”-immigrant. Besides so many of those founding North American beliefs in the greatness of immigration – myths that are, it should be pointed out, largely alien to many European nations – it is impossible to consider a historical timeline in which immigration did not, or could not, take place.

People move, integrate, fragment, and keep moving. They always have, they always will, and the moment when they stop is the moment we as a species cease to be. This is as true for biology as it is for culture. There’s no such thing as a “pure” race, a “pure” nationality, a “pure” religion. They are practical, if not figurative, impossibilities.

As a North American, I am often mystified by the strong presence of reactionary politics in Europe. From England’s British National Party to the Denmark’s Danish People’s Party, the far-right has a grip on the imagination of voters and the public consciousness generally. These groups play to deep allegiances: to race, to nation, to tribal boundaries. These ideas transcend the lines of party, and, in (relative to North America) “older” countries such as Norway, the mythology of “origins” and purity hold a persistently strong grip on national identities. In all cases, immigration threatens these myths of origin.

Racial and national purity do of course have a history in North America. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were “nativists,” with a professed distrust of certain (mostly French and Irish) immigrant groups. Both America and Canada shared a vile hostility towards Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Canada even has a history with the Ku Klux Klan, whose nationalist and secularist tendencies proved very popular in Saskatchewan in the 1920s. Around the same time, Eastern Europeans fled the dangers of their own countries, came to Canada, and found out that even looking like your neighbour could still mean you had the deck stacked against you from the moment you stepped off the boat. And nobody could deny the racism behind current political decisions in America with regards to Mexican immigrants (legal or otherwise).

Where do race, ethnicity, and nation intersect? At what points do they structure and support each other? Are they ever distinguishable, and, if so, what forces compel them to collide, or separate? These questions have been asked over and over, most notably in post-WWII Germany, but also with less visibility in innumerable European countries where immigration doesn’t just necessarily mean “from elsewhere,” or “taking our jobs” (which isn’t a pervasive European myth of immigrants). To some people, an immigrant is an ontological challenge: a defiance of the very categories of their existence.

And so when we’re talking about the “Muslim menace,” or whatever it is that Breivik and his cells of domestic terrorists all fear so greatly, we should always keep in mind that Muslims are only the newest in a long line of “menaces” in Europe: Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Protestants, Catholics…the list could go on and on, the longer you go back. That can only be small comfort to those of Muslim background who face very real discrimination every day in European cities.

Perhaps because of the accident of geography, North America has been spared the immediacy of what Breivik and his ilk would call the “threat” of a Muslim world. That isn’t to say that others haven’t tried to bring it to the fore: Mark Steyn, for example, has raised the spectre of this putative danger in a widely-discussed Maclean’s cover story. In Canada, most of the conflicts with Islam, and with ethnically Muslim immigrants, are civic conflicts: the role of religion in public schools, or the bugbear of honour killings, or those who seek to institute Sharia law in certain court systems.

As someone who is proudly atheist, I do sometimes feel threatened by the role of religion in civic discussions. Islam has borne the unfortunate burden of “representing” religion in the public eye in the years since 9/11, if only by virtue of the fact that (predominantly Christian) North American society has “woken up” to the hundreds of thousands of ethnically Muslim immigrants in our shared society, many of whom are (rightly) demanding a fair shot at culture and lifestyle.

But let’s not be taken in by the red herring of religion in discussions of domestic terrorism. The conflicts surrounding immigration are not, and have never been, about religion. They almost always boil down to economics, politics, and power. Breivik’s “fundamentalist” Christianity was merely playing a recurring historical role, that of a shadow broker behind a political massacre. What a colossal irony that he would invoke it to brutally murder other Christians, for showing even passive interest in those whose backgrounds they do not necessarily share.

So with a history of intolerance, and a wariness of immigration, could Canada spawn an Anders Behring Breivik?

It would be naïve to say “no” – after all, few countries could match Norway’s peaceful rule of law and generally welcoming nature. Canada, despite its sense of itself as a peaceful, tolerant society, could learn much from our Northern European cousins in the areas of progressive, internationalist cooperation.

And yet when we’re speaking of the extreme right, I just do not believe that any such precedent exists in Canada, nor do I believe they would carry the popular support of as much as 20 percent of elected officials (as they do, shockingly, in Norway). That may be an accident of history, more than anything else – such isolationist sentiments do exist in the United States. We are so lucky to have myths founded on immigration as a positive force, as racially-inflected as they might be.

Of course, the anti-immigrant perspective runs to the core of human behaviour. Ours is a species that, in moments of both calm and stress, reviles difference. And “immigrant” is a mutable term, prone to shifting meanings: as the history of the Irish in North America shows us, an “alien” can be someone who shares everything with you besides which church you attend.

And so next time you’re having an argument over coffee about whether Canada should continue a “multicultural” model or follow a “melting-pot” model, or some other by-rote civics topic, keep in mind how lucky we are to assume that at least one of those answers is correct. Tragically, that is not the case in many parts of the world, as we saw late last week.

  1. A thought-provoking post, but I would disagree with your analysis of the differences between McVeigh and Breivik’s purported aims. In my view, regardless of the documentary basis of McVeigh’s actions (i.e. the Constitution of the United States), what he was “defending” against was a perceived breach of that document’s symbolic purity – that is to say, his vision of the United States as a democratic ideal. Like any other symbol, the Constitution is polysemic – denoting different (often contradictory) things to different people and groups – witness its recent mobilization by both the Tea Party and the liberal left in the States. As a symbol, the Constitution is therefore as illusory (yet also as powerfully motivating) as Breivik’s fantasy of an unsullied Nordic patrimony.

    I’d say both acts were defensive in nature, by reactionary madmen who tragically lost touch with the moral norms which must knit any group of people together. “We the People of the United States” implies a “you” and a “they” who fall outside the semantic boundaries of that subjective pronoun, no less than more such objective markers as skin colour, language, dress, or religious denomination, which may nevertheless be meaningless as symbolic boundaries. In that sense, I think that the parallel between the two crimes holds up, which suggests that Canada is in no way immune to the possibility that such crimes might happen there.

    Finally, with respect to your own beliefs, I would say that as rational as a “proud atheist” might hold himself or herself to be, the symbolic defense of moral boundaries is something that we all take part in. “Strong atheism is not the absence of an in-group ideology but the defence of one: modern secularism” writes Jonathan Lanman, in a recent article in New Scientist (26 Mar 2011, see Secular terrorism such as that perpetrated by McVeigh and Breivik (who, despite his alleged Christian fundamentlist beliefs, did not appear to be motivated by any authorized Christian doctrine) is worrisome precisely because it is almost impossible to anticipate, and is usually carried out by lone sociopaths who suffer from the illusion that they are acting in the best interests of a community which would never condone their actions.

    • Thanks for your comment, Stephen.
      Part of what I was hoping to illustrate was that Breivik’s “motivating animus” took its direction from a primal, external fear: that of the “other.” From everything I’ve read on McVeigh, he saw society as being in collusion with an internal evil: that the weakness was in the leadership, or the forces which structure and enabled that leadership, but not in the fundamental character of the nation. I think the best way to think about it is that McVeigh’s actions were ideologically purgative, while Breivik’s were demographically preventative. If that makes any sense. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs. Certainly, at a certain point, each was “restorative,” and perhaps referential to an older archetype. I suppose I find Breivik’s motives more disturbing, as they are based on a characteristic that precedes creed or belief: race and blood. McVeigh’s is in many ways more complicated, and tortured: the “they,” in his case, was *also* the “us.” I’ve read over a lot of his interviews, and in them, he describes the difficulty (ironic, in retrospect) in separating those he found “guilty” from the “innocent.” He explicitly wanted to avoid killing any civilians — believing them, for some unfathomable reason, to be different in character, nature from those aligned with government.
      As for my own atheism: I don’t doubt that we all defend our own moral boundaries. And yes, domestic, secular terrorism is a growing and persistent threat. But I don’t believe it is any more impossible to anticipate than, say, sectarian violence or terrorism. I would also say that while individual acts like those of McVeigh and Breivik’s are difficult to anticipate, they are often unsurprising (even if only in retrospect). Anti-Muslim sentiments run strong in many northern European communities, and the presence of far-right parties in these countries has legitimized these beliefs. Racism and xenophobia are nothing new, but I think many people in North America would be surprised to know how much common, above-board currency they carry in Europe.

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