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Anders Breivik: Isolated Mad Man or Tip of the Far-Right Racist Iceburg?

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

Co-authored with Alison Howell, author of Madness in International Relations: Psychology, Security and the Global Governance of Mental Health

The recent events in Norway have revealed the pitfalls of speculation within a 24-hour news cycle/instant social media environment. Almost immediately after information about the bombings and the shootings emerged, facebook, twitter, and media outlets were saturated with possible theories on the source of the violence- with most of the speculation focused on radical Islam and Al-Qaeda (The Atlantic immediately re-posted a great article on Al Qaeda in Norway).

In the ensuing days, a new kind of speculation has become common in reporting on these events: that is, speculation about the psychology of the man who admits to committing these acts (if not his guilt).

Much of this started with Breivik’s own attorney vowing that his client must be insane and that he would only continue to represent him on the condition that he submits to psychological testing. But a number of news outlets, and indeed psychiatrists and psychologists interviewed in the media, have decided not to wait for these kinds of assessments, preferring instead to speculate about Breivik’s psyche based on the very limited information that we now have.

One particularly troubling example of this kind of psychiatric speculation includes a July 25 BBC Europe article, which asserts that “a deep level of mental disturbance” underlies Breivik’s motivations. The article quotes a professor of forensic psychiatry stating: “The bottom line is that we don’t at this moment know enough about his motives to diagnose his mental state. However, while there are all sorts of cross-cutting with right-wing ideology, I believe he is likely to be suffering from a mental disorder.” The article then goes on, to compare Breivik to David Copeland (the 1999 London ‘Nail Bomber’), citing the same professor as saying that “The Norway attack is on the same lines – where extreme right-wing beliefs merge with paranoid psychosis, or delusional disorder….”
The article also quotes a forensic clinical psychologist, who, based on Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ is willing to authoritatively avow that Breivik must have been a ‘shut away,’ ‘insane’ and ‘deluded.’ These kinds of highly speculative pseudo-diagnosis are not confined solely to the BBC report: the Telegraph described Breivik as a “blond psychopath;” another source wonders if Breivik is insane or just evil; and Time magazine has recently published a piece in Breivik entitled “An Interview with a Madman.

Similarly, West Side Republicans– a Republican blog recently sported the headline “NORWAY – Breivik is a politically isolated sociopath. Not A Christian Fundamentalist as the Media & Left would have you believe.” The main conclusion of the post is that “Breivik’s murder spree did not result from classical liberal influences any more than it resulted from Christian influences: It resulted from his own evil and twisted mind.” The blog also takes issue with the way that the New York Times has portrayed Breivik as a Christian extremist, claiming: “The problem is this: There is no “Christian extremist” movement in the way that there is an Islamist or “Islamic extremist” movement. There are bad Christians, to be sure; but they have no modern-day intellectual and political movement that supports and sustains them — modern-day Islamists, or Islamic extremists, do…”

This kind of psychological speculation evident here is highly dangerous, for at least 3 reasons.

1. The idea that he was a solitary monster ignores clear evidence of a wider political community sharing his ideals. We now know that Breivik sent his manifesto out to over 250 individuals just before the bombs in Oslo were detonated, including several far right politicians and the anti-IslamicEnglish Defence League (EDL). It was reported in the Foreigner that “several supporters of the EDL admitted they met Breivik at rallies in Britain and the attacker even confessed he had over 600 EDL members among his Facebook contacts.” Even Breivik’s lawyer has stated that Breivik is part of a wider community of right wing fundamentalists- referencing two additional cells in Norway. Breivik was also aprolific contributor to right wing blogs, and pointed to extreme right wing political parties such as Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party, and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party as sources of inspiration.

It isn’t the thought of Breivik as an isolated monster that is disturbing, rather it is the realization that he has is part of a broad community that share his ideals- if not his tactics. Just Wednesday a member of France’s far-right Front National was suspended for referring to Breivik as an “icon” and a “defender of the West.” Even more disturbing were comments made by a faction of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament: “One hundred per cent of Breivik’s ideas are good, in some cases extremely good. The positions of Breivik reflect the views of those movements across Europe which are winning elections.”

2. This kind of psychological speculation perpetuates the pervasive myth that violence is a characteristic of madness, when in fact people diagnosed with mental disorders are no more likely to commit violent crimes than those who are considered sane. It’s no surprise that the two experts called on in the BBC report mentioned above include a forensic psychologist and a forensic psychiatrist: these are highly problematic disciplines dedicated to tying together crime and madness. It is time, once and for all, to dispel this myth (which is particularly attached to people diagnosed with schizophrenia). Like the term ‘queer,’ the term ‘madness’ is increasingly being reclaimed by organizations such as MindFreedom International and activists in the Mad Pride and psychiatric survivor movements, who are working to claim their rights against often coercive systems of mental health governance. Casting violent acts as evidence of insanity makes it more difficult for such activists to get us to see that madness is just another form of difference (like race, gender or sexuality), and that mental health should be understood in terms of social justice.

3. Psychological speculation renders Breivik’s motivations exceptional and irrational, rather than placing them in the broader context of political debates — especially as they concern multiculturalism in Norway, Europe, or more broadly the West. Regardless of Breivik’s mental state, we should listen to what he lists as his motivations and view his actions primarily as a form of violence motivated by racism. If we pay attention to the way that right wing media outlets are spinning this story it becomes apparent that the underlying anti-immigrant racist ideals of Breivik have traction across the globe. The highlights (or low-lights) of Pat Buchanan’s insights into the attacks in Norway Breivik shows a defiant and impassioned defence of the motivations expressed by Breivik:

“Though Breivik is being called insane, that is the wrong word….Breivik is evil – a cold-blooded, calculating killer – though a deluded man of some intelligence, who in his 1,500-page manifesto reveals a knowledge of the history, culture and politics of Europe. … Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and David Cameron of Britain have all declared multiculturalism a failure. From votes in Switzerland to polls across the continent, Europeans want an end to the wearing of burqas and the building of prayer towers in mosques….awful as this atrocity was, native-born and homegrown terrorism is not the macro-threat to the continent. That threat comes from a burgeoning Muslim presence in a Europe that has never known mass immigration, its failure to assimilate, its growing alienation, and its sometime sympathy for Islamic militants and terrorists.”

People are justified in wondering about the mental state of Breivik- or anyone that could commit such atrocities. However, writing Breivik’ off Breivik’s actions as isolated, irrational and crazy closes out space for talking about the potential iceberg of racists anti-immigration attitudes that his actions sit atop of.

“Sure I’m against war and exploitation- but don’t make me feel guilty about my diamond ring”

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

Wanna know a guaranteed conversation stopper- great for engagement parties or wedding receptions? Mention the politics of diamonds.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not into being a political Debbie Downer at social events. God knows I have the ammunition. Yet, in my experience women and men are more comfortable with discussions of wartime sexual violence, amputations, and children born as a result of rape than they are about clear gems.
So what gives?

This has been a question plaguing since I finished several months of field work in Sierra Leone in my late 20s- the same time that everyone around me was getting engaged and getting married. This also coincided with the peak (and, it turns out, the rapid decline) in attention to conflict/blood diamonds by human rights organizations and the media.

No one wants to be that self-righteous white girl who has just returned from the global south with lessons to impart on anyone who will listen- so I tried to reserve my rants about diamonds for my husband (bless him), my single friends (‘who wants diamonds anyway!’), or people who were already convinced that diamonds are a source of international exploitation.

To me, three main arguments against diamonds were clear and irrefutable.

  1. The obvious argument (to me, at least): many diamonds are blood diamonds or conflict diamonds. It has been shown time and time again that the money from the sales of diamonds has been used to buy arms, support rebel groups, and sustain oppressive leaders in places like Sierra Leone, Angola, and Liberia. Buying diamonds help support civil wars and continued exploitation.
  2. There is no such thing as ethical diamonds. I swear, the next time someone tells me they bought a 100% genuine conflict free diamond I will break my diamond rant silence. I’m Canadian. I know that there are diamonds that come from Canada and other parts of the world that are marketed as ethical. Here’s the Debbie Downer reality. De Beers owns over a 51% share in half ofCanada’s diamond mines. This is the same cartel that was established by former colonizer Cecil Rhodes and that has been lilnked with supporting apartheid, allowing slave labor conditions, andprice fixing (amongst other charges). The extra money someone pays for the ethical diamond still supports a cartel that also sells diamonds mined in conflict zones, and under conditions of exploitation and slave labor. So when someone buys an ethical diamond it is like they are buying a Lexus while those buying ‘non-ethical’ diamonds are choosing the Echo- either way, both are supporting Toyota. The ethical buyer just happen to be the high end client. Another bummer for diamond lovers is the fact that the majority of diamonds are cut and polished in India (yes even ethical diamonds); there is mounting evidence of child labor being used to do this. I know, it keeps getting worse….so it’s like buying a Lexus that was put together using child labor?…
  3. Finally. If the blood/conflict argument and the non-ethical arguments don’t work, there’s always the ‘you are just paying WAY too much money for a common stone marketed as a rare gem’ argument. In other words- smart people are getting duped by the best ad campaign in history (more on that in another post).

So there is no shortage of arguments against diamonds. In fact, new ones seem to emerge all the time (have a look at a fantastic blog about this topic at Al Jazeera). For example, there have been recent discussions of the abuse of diamond miners in Zimbabwe. Why is Zimbabwe allowed to sell diamonds legally through the Kimberly process with thief Mugabe as a leader? Good question.

Despite all the arguments against diamonds, discussing any of them is still a social taboo of sorts. What is even more interesting has been watching- one by one- friends who were also passionate about this issue, people whom I know have worked in countries with the diamond resource curse, and friends who used to cheer ‘who needs diamonds?’ go to the dark side. That is, beam with joy and give me the ‘please don’t make me feel guilty about this’ look when they get a diamond engagement ring.

And I don’t say anything. But with recent developments in Zimbabwe, and a virtual closed door on discussions about diamonds and exploitation internationally I can’t help but send out my frustrations here and ask the questions again, that I have been asking myself for over a decade: How is it possible that gems linked to slave labor, wars, amputation, environmental destruction, and cartels continue to be the symbol of everlasting love? and Why does the personal desire for a symbol of wedding fairy tales trump any logical arguments about the reality behind diamonds? I’d love to hear your ideas and I’m going to try to tackle this question in a second blog….coming soon.

Hugh Grant the Unlikely Victor in the News of the World Battle

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

The highlights of this story are largely well known: At a pub in Dover Hugh Grant secretly records former News of the World (NoW) reporter Paul McMullan detailing how NoW had regularly hacked into phones and raided the trash of celebrities to get the inside scoop. A feature is printed in the New Statesman. Further allegations come to the fore- including that the phone of former missing youth Milly Dowler, as well as the phones of deceased servicemen, have been hacked. Rupert Murdoch is shocked. The NoW is shut down as of Sunday July 10th.

It’s hard to know what to make of this story- complete with an absolutely unlikely list of characters. In keeping with all great news stories, this one has a couple of notable “good news/bad news” elements.
First, the good news is that the News of the World has been shut down. Seriously, with a list of headlines that include

My Big Fat Gypsy Divorce at just 19
FI Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With Hookers
Boozy bro Andy Carroll gave me black why eye

it can’t be considered much of a loss for the British media.

The bad news is that Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of NoW and current CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News International has managed to avoid loosing her job and avoid charges- despite reports that she knew about the hacking. Brooks seems to have enough friends in high places to allow her to walk out of this scandal untouched. There are stories of her and Prime Minister David Cameron going horse-back riding regularly and the best man at her wedding in 2003 was the director of the Press Complaints Commission. Is the end of NoW a case of destroying Frankenstein but not his creator?

Second, the good news is that Hugh Grant has been catapulted into the spotlight again after a few years of making largely forgettable films. Grant looked intelligent, professional, and- quite frankly- dashing.
The bad news is that it’s hard to know if Hugh Grant’s role in bringing The News of the World to its knees this week should be seen as a sign of Grant’s talent as an investigative journalist, or of the depressing state of the British media. Furthermore, Paul McMullan- whom Grant recorded- had himself been trying to blow the whistle on the newspaper for some time, largely to deaf ears. Does this mean that it takes the power of celebrity rather than an inside journalist to get the media and public’s attention?

At a final glance the only clear winner in this whole story is Hugh Grant. He’s redeemed himself for his own NoW scandal involving a prostitute in 1995 and eclipsed that story (and the image of his infamous mug shot) with a story of his own investigative journalism that led to the end of an era in British media history.