“Your trial offers you a stage to the world”. Anders Breivik’s words from his manifesto that he wrote before murdering 77 people last July now appear prescient. His ten week trial is swiftly turning into a media frenzy, as the morbid details of the massacre are endlessly retold.
Breivik is proving a master self-publicist, grabbing headlines with his Nazi-esque salutes, the revelation of his plan to behead the Norwegian Prime Minister and his demand that he either be acquitted or face the death penalty.
The scale of his murders and his apparent lack of remorse has led the media to portray him in almost supernatural terms, lending him an aura of horror that magnifies the coverage.
This naturally raises worries that such a platform is exactly what Breivik wanted, a chance to spread his twisted ideology that he would never have gained otherwise.
While his incoherent mess of Islamaphobic and far right slogans is unlikely to convince many, the fear of individuals carrying out copycat attacks is a valid one.
Breivik’s attack bore a disturbing resemblance to campus shootings in the U.S where the attackers have often been inspired by earlier incidents.
However his trial offers a vital chance to start a much needed debate. Breivik’s ideology did not arise from nowhere – it is a distorted and wildly extreme version of a tide of concern over the impact of multiculturalism and immigration on Europe, some of which is merely xenophobia but much of which raises valid questions.
Though Breivik’s claimed alliance of far-right networks might be a delusion, his rhetoric is not a world away from that of parties such as the English Defence League or the BNP, parties that rely on distorted images of Islam and immigration to bolster their support. A reluctance to challenge such views allows them to present themselves as a persecuted minority.
Instead of shying away from reporting on Breivik’s views, the media should be focusing on them. The strange concoction of nationalism, racism and conspiracy theory that underpins his views is clearly absurd; set out in a manifesto he admits was largely cut and pasted off the internet. Such ideology will only remain attractive if it is mysticised and hidden, becoming a lure for those desperate to fashion themselves as lone warriors.
Breivik has been at his most pathetic in the trial when trying to cling to the illusion of the ‘Knights Templar’, a network of far-right crusaders that appears to exist only in his mind. When this fantasy was stripped away by the prosecutors it helped puncture the illusions of all those who imagine themselves to be in a cultural war.
Where the publicity he receives becomes dangerous is when his motives are glossed over in favour of publicising Breivik himself – risking creating a morbid cult of celebrity.
While his actions can only described as evil, the media’s focus on the bloody details of the attack and his lack of remorse are magnifying his image. If the fear is that of lone copycat attacks then it is the publicity that Breivik’s personality and image is attracting which is far more of dangerous than his weak defence of his views.
In making Breivik into a unique embodiment of evil the press is isolating him from the twisted politics that inspired his actions, and wasting a chance to expose the wider danger.
The trial itself is a model of how to deal with such a madman – by constantly challenging his worldview and refusing to treat Breivik as anything other than a criminal, his pretence to being a political spokesman is undermined.
With no death penalty, Breivik will not achieve his martyrdom, and Norway will have shown the strength of a liberal society in rejecting his message of hatred.
Adam Clark – International Co-Editor