Ever since I saw the first pictures of the horrible bombing in Oslo, I've been glued to Twitter trying to make sense of everything. My husband and I had a conversation where he theorized about Norwegian extremists but it wasn't difficult to wonder whether this was the latest example of Al Qaeda-style terrorism. The New York Times published that a jihadi group had claimed responsibility, although the paper noted that the claim was "unconfirmed," and it seemed this might be a story about violent religious extremists wreaking havoc.
It turns out that while a Muslim group claimed responsibility on the internet, the actual perpetrator was not Muslim. But that doesn't mean the story is without a tremendous religion angle.
The terrorist, it turns out, is vehemently anti-Muslim. Apart from that, the mixture of information we're getting about the man is very hard to synthesize. I saw his Facebook page before it was removed. It had only been started a few days ago and featured a professional headshot, no friends and a listing of YouTubes featuring some of his favorite classical and trance music. In his "information" section, it included a list of his favorite books and influences, including Swedenborgian philosopher William James and the books On Liberty, 1984, The Trial, War and Peace, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Critique of Pure Reason, The Prince, Wealth of Nations, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Leviathan, The Divine Comedy and The Republic. On Facebook, he self-identified as Christian and conservative.
In this lengthy listing (49 pages) of writings the alleged shooter posted to a message board, there's a paragraph or two devoted to his religious views. We learn that he's a Protestant (of his own "free will") who wishes that the Church of Norway would just convert back to Rome, he dislikes priests who wear jeans and support Palestinians, and that he thinks the modern church is dying. We know from other evidence that he is a Free Mason.
Meanwhile, the deputy police chief announced that the shooter was a "Christian fundamentalist" but no one has reported either the evidence for the claim or how the police determined that. Whatever the case, he may be the only Freemason, Rome-leaning, Protestant fundamentalist in the world.
We know much more about his politics, I guess, although I find some of his positions there to be just as incongruous. He was anti-Marxist, anti-Nazi, pro-Israeli, anti-multicultural. He vehemently opposed Norway's immigration policies but thought that the far right groups in Norway were racist.
So. Who takes these views and thinks that a good way to advance them is to kill 80+ children? I'm not sure we have a satisfactory answer.
But The Atlantic has figured it all out. Turns out the shooter was led to do all this by his fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. This hasn't been a good week for The Atlantic and religion news, but let's see. Maybe they have something to teach us.
Note the url: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/christian-fundamentalist-charged-death-toll-norway-soars-past-90/40321/. The headline? "The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway's Massacre"
Wow! They must really have access to some exclusive information. I can't wait to find out what it is. Here are the top five paragraphs of the profile:
The death toll in Norway rose to at least 91 in Norway, the New York Times reports, following the bombing of a government center in Oslo on Friday and a shooting attack on a nearby youth camp island. The reports so far have been horrifying. According to The Guardian, a 15-year-old camper gave her account of hiding behind the same rock that the killer was standing on, dressed in a police uniform, as he shot at people. Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said he knew many of the victims of the shooting on Utøya personally.
The Norwegian police charged a 32-year-old man on Saturday, who was identified by the Norwegian media as Anders Behring Breivik. The photo above is a screen grab from his Facebook page, which has since been blocked. Breivik has been identified as a "Christian fundamentalist with right-wing connections," according to the Times, as well as with anti-Muslim views, according to multiple sources.
This is what we do and don't know about Breivik so far:
Religious views: According to the BBC, Breivik has a Facebook and Twitter account that he set up a mere few days ago on July 17, where he identifies himself as a Christian and a conservative. There are several reports of his anti-Muslim views. In a post in Norwegian in an online forum on December 2009, a user named Anders Behring Breivik claims there is not one country where Muslims have peacefully lived with non-Muslims, stating that instead it has had "catastrophic consequences" for non-Muslims.
Political views: The Daily Mail reports that National police chief Sveinung Sponheim told public broadcaster NRK that the suspected gunman's internet postings "suggest that he has some political traits directed toward the right, and anti-Muslim views, but if that was a motivation for the actual act remains to be seen." Furthermore, the Norwegian daily Verdens Gang quoted a friend as saying Breivik became a rightwing extremist in his late 20s.
Um, OK. Maybe the explanation of how he was motivated by his Christianity or Christian fundamentalism is further down in the piece.
We learn that he's a member of a political party that advocates for stricter immigration and lower taxes. He apparently argued that socialism was breaking down traditions, culture, national identity and other societal structure and that this made society weak and confused. We learn that he was a fan of anti-Nazi World War II hero Max Manus. He liked Dexter, the TV show about the serial killer. He was into partying, gaming and fitness. We learn about his like of John Stuart Mill.
And we learn that he ran an organic fruit and vegetable farm. Hmm, so I guess we're still waiting to find out about why The Atlantic is so dramatically pushing this idea that Breivik was motivated by Christian fundamentalism.
Now it's certainly true that the New York Times printed that a jihad group had claimed responsibility for the attack. An attack that, based on the evidence we have thus far, they didn't actually commit. And certainly some parts of the blogosphere were either too trusting of this report or too eager to believe that this attack fit into the mold of Muslim terrorism as opposed to anti-government terrorism.
But now the media are committing an equal and opposite rush to judgment. It is certainly true that a police chief said that this man was a "Christian fundamentalist." But at this point, I've seen precisely zero evidence that he was one, much less that he has in any way claimed it as a motivation for what he did. Maybe that will happen. Maybe he is right now telling police that his interpretation of a particular book of the Bible means that you shoot up 80-plus kids on an island. I don't know.
Until such time as we learn that, though, this seems more like an attempt to force the shooter's motivation into something equivalent to Islamist terror. Again, maybe it is. Maybe we will discover a trove of writings about how Jesus commands his followers to kill a bunch of kids. I don't know. But we certainly don't have that now.
I think we can safely say, as Mother Jones does, that the shooter was "obsessed with the impact of Islam on Norwegian society." That's precisely what I picked up when I read the many dozens of pages of internet comments.
The media have an unfortunate history of taking people who claim political motivations, be they anti-government Timothy McVeigh or anti-abortion Eric Rudolph, and call them "Christian" terrorists. Even if these same people vehemently deny that their acts had anything to do with their (lack of) religious views. And I'm sure that happens with terrorists of other stripes whose violence isn't related or strongly related to their religious views.
I've read a bit more since I started writing this. Norwegian media have linked to the terrorist's explanation for his actions. He spent years on his plans. There is quite a bit to chew on in terms of his obsession with Muslims, multiculturalism, nationalism, etc. And it seems, if I'm reading this correctly, that he was part of a Masonic group called Knights Templar.
And here's an English translation of a Norwegian blog that has been tracking conservative extremists. He says that it's wrong to call the terrorist either a "Christian conservative" or a "neo-Nazi":
Breivik was inspired by an internet community who brands itself “counter jihadist”, a community espousing an ideology that may be considered as extreme right-wing, which also has connections to European neo-fascism. It’s a community I have been following fairly closely for a number of years. I am not surprised that the spirit of this community has now resulted in an act of terror in Norway. What is surprising is the scale, the scope of the terrorist attacks. The number of casualties exceeds the Al Qa’ida attack in London a few years ago. Although there are examples of terrorist attacks perpetrated by similarly motivated people in the past, they have not approached the scale of this incident.
If you read the terrorist's own manifesto, it seems like this is a more fruitful avenue for journalists to pursue. And I guess many of us will need some refresher courses on Freemasonry, too.