The wider implications of the Breivik verdict

It was the verdict that Norway wanted and also that wished for by Anders Behring Breivik. He had legal accountability for the act of terrorism he perpetrated over a year ago. He will now be imprisoned in Ila Prison for 21 years though if he is still adjudged to be a threat to the public that term can be extended.

There are a number of implications of the verdict. Firstly, debates about free speech have not been concluded. In return for information about the involvement of ‘others’ in his ‘cell’ of the ‘Eurabian’ counter-jihad movement, he is now in possession of a laptop. On this he will be writing. The question is whether these writings can and should be published. Further debates await.

Secondly, there are wider implications of the verdict of ‘sanity’ or, more accurately, legal accountability. We know that Breivik was part of a wider movement and network even though these acts are likely to have been perpetrated alone. The relationship between a European and US wide network of social media, activist groups, publications, protest, parties and violent acts needs to be better understood. Breivik is at the most extreme end of a global phenomenon – far right hate and violence in its myriad of forms. That such terrorist acts occurred in one the globe’s most peaceful and affluent societies should serve as a warning to all. The threat is very real.

That is why a verdict of sanity has wider implications and one of insanity would have been a disaster. Insanity would have explained it away and the hard questions about the nature of the threat could have been avoided.

It should be borne in mind that concerns about multiculturalism, immigration, elites acting against the public interest and a feeling of anxiety about societal and cultural change are not the preserve of the extreme right – in fact they are pretty mainstream as opinion poll data has consistently demonstrated. What needs to interrogated is how these cultural anxieties feed into – or not – extreme activities. How does anxiety become hate and violence or is the relationship of no consequence at all? Yesterday’s superb piece from Cas Mudde suggests that the mainstream may have a role in validating the extremes. He looked at narratives such as ‘birthism’ and state betrayal of people associated with the Tea Party. This discourse is within mainstream Republicanism and Mudde considers the case of Wisconsin shooter Wade Michael Page in this context. These are questions that need further consideration.

For Norway, there is a third implication. Its police and security services have been excoriated by an independent report into events of July 22nd 2011. The head of Norway’s police has resigned in response. The Government itself has been highly criticised following the report for not implementing security measures which has placed Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, under considerable pressure. Confidence building measures and concrete action is required. The national unity of a year ago is now more politically charged though Norway still remains remarkably calm and united through what has been a nightmare.

Finally, a thought today for 77 people who tragically lost their lives last year and for their families. The way this case has been handled, the way that Norwegian society has responded and coped is a mark of respect. At the heart of all the vibrations from violence, law, politics and media glare is the human tragedy. That can never be forgotten. It’s why these acts need to be understood and learned from – not only in Norway – so they can avoided in future.

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