Reflections on the Breivik trial
The trial of Anders Behring Breivik, nine months since the tragic events that resulted in the loss of 77 lives of Norwegian nationals, has renewed the traditional media’s interest in Europe’s far right.
The event is a global spectacle. Reporters are flown into Oslo to record the smallest details of the trial, from descriptions of the defendant’s appearance to the inferences of courtroom glances.
The morning papers carry maps of Breivik’s ‘death trail’ accompanied by full-colour photographs of the perpetrator giving a ‘defiant’ one-armed, clenched-fist salute. His victims are reduced to mug shots and dispassionate recollections of their deaths. Shot four times in neck, back and sides. Blasted three times in the head. Fell off cliff while escaping.
Eminent columnists from across the political spectrum indulge in armchair psychology, audaciously trying to categorise the motives to drive a man to commit such murderous acts. He was consumed by an ideological hatred of Muslims and socialists. He was a monster made by multiculturalism and cultural Marxism. It is impossible to understand his actions divorced from the wider political context within which he was embedded.
For these pundits, the trial offers an opportunity to dictate the boundaries of political acceptability. It is one of those rare events where left and right can come together, speaking as one voice to reaffirm the ‘antiracist’ consensus that is the bedrock of European post-war democracy.
But little over a decade ago, mass-murdering loners were not the only ones deemed beyond the pale by mainstream opinion. Far right political parties that spout the same nativist ideas that Breivik claims inspired his acts, once came in for similar condemnation. Take Jorg Haider. When his anti-immigrant Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) entered Government in 2000, there were howls of consternation from Europe’s media, and sanctions were imposed against his country by the EU.
When French Front National leader Jean Marie Le Pen got through to the Presidential run-off in 2002, newspaper editorials lamented a national tragedy not seen since the Vichy era. Sister far right parties in neighbouring countries were derided and dismissed. They exerted little influence over the politics or discourse of a European continent that was proud of its motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’.
But these parties’ political progeny may not have to deal with such hostility. Some, such as Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders have been brought into the fold of respectable opinion. Wilders, now a support partner in his country’s Government, is ‘the most popular elected politician in Holland’. He writes Wall Street Journal columns and is championed by British parliamentarians.
Jean Marie Le Pen’s daughter and successor Marine is lauded as ‘elegant and increasingly incisive’, garnering admiration in the Daily Mail which describes her role in public life as ‘not merely legitimate but increasingly necessary.’
Far right populist parties, born outside mainstream Christian and Social democracy, now increase their influence at almost every national election, picking up new voters and taking advantage of a growing anti-elite sentiment encouraging citizens to desert the established parties.
Their ‘legitimisation’ takes place within an apologetic Europe, which is increasingly unsure of itself. In the past two years, we have seen conservative Government figures all over the continent proclaiming that multiculturalism has failed. Leading social democrats, kicked out of power election after election throughout the continent during the 2000s, are starting to question the benefits of historic migration into their countries. They are calling for closed borders and stating regret at their ‘naivety’ in accepting ‘uncontrolled’ immigration for so long. The public, at a time of economic strife, is told to take part in debates on ‘national identity’ or Islam’s place in Europe – the voices of Europe’s minorities are rarely, if ever, heard.
The situation means that Europe’s far right populist parties are no longer the ‘outsiders’ to whom the mainstream defines itself against. Now they are part of the consensus. During events like the Breivik trial, when the activities of the far right are briefly placed under the spotlight, party leaders cling to ‘respectable’ opinion with their public statements. Wilders has condemned the attacker as ‘violent and sick’. Mme Le Pen called him a ‘crazy man’. When news of a play to be based around Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ came to light, Danish People’s Party leader Pia Kjaersgaard said it was in ‘poor taste’.
Breivik’s trial is due to end in July when the media spotlight will move onto another story. But has it damaged the dangerous ideology that he claims motivated his actions?
Sadly, it seems that while seeing Europe’s far right in the context of violent extremism has undoubtedly warned people about certain risks, it has done little to diminish the far right’s political influence. In fact, as I have argued previously, it may even have bolstered it.
With journalists, activists and academics increasingly focusing on far right street movements and Facebook networks, its political parties know that the path to respectability is clearer than ever.
Cordon sanitaires have been dismantled, freeing parties to play an active role in governing coalitions – legitimised by their mainstream counterparts.
The trial of one mass-murdering loner in Oslo will do nothing to change that.
K Biswas is a writer based in London.
He is the author of a special report ‘Eyes to the far right’ published in the June 2011 edition of the New Internationalist.