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Norway's mad killer, private justice and the future of the state

When Anders Breivik, a native Norwegian, blew up eight people in downtown Oslo and shot 69 others, mostly young people attending a retreat sponsored by one of Norway's main political parties, he felt he was defending his homeland from an onslaught of immigrants. He wasn't part of the Norwegian army, nor its border patrol, nor any other agency of the government. He was a private individual acting out of his own belief that those associated with a lenient stance on immigration needed to be stopped, in this case Norway's ruling Labor Party.

Breivik distributed a 1500-page manifesto right before his rampage, a grab bag of conspiracy theories that comports neatly with type of individual described in Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." A considerable amount of the manifesto was taken from other sources, and so it isn't a coherent piece of argumentation. Before I even scanned the document I was sure there would be a section on the threatened Norwegian way of life, or at least an equivalent. There was, and it came in the form of an essay by another writer referring to the so-called "Swedish model," described as a third way between capitalism and communism. While I can't be sure Breivik embraces this idea completely, I'm relatively certain he wouldn't have included it unless he had considerable affinity for it.

I couldn't help contrasting this to America's so-called Tea Party whose members sought to derail health care reform which is designed to provide universal health care coverage. This group seems fully to have embraced the American mythology of the self-reliant man (and woman). Government control of anything is thought to mean less "freedom" for the individual. I put "freedom" in quotes for in this case it means less access to education, health care, old age benefits and a variety of public services which can actually enhance a person's range of choices. Whether many of the Tea Party members will embrace a constriction in the availability of such opportunities and services may now be tested given the recent deal in Congress for cutting spending.

My belief is that many of the Tea Party members are being perniciously misled by the billionaire backers of the movement. These backers are getting their hapless followers to advocate policies that simply reduce the tax burden on the rich while undermining services critical to the functioning of a complex industrial society and ones needed for basic social equity and harmony. It's a movement that can only be called anarchical. It is trying to disassemble the accomplishments of American society achieved through Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is a movement focused not so much on protecting American society from outside forces, but insulating the individual from society's reach and therefore also from its aid.

Breivik offers a significant contrast. He is certain that immigrants, specifically Muslim immigrants, don't share the values necessary to sustain the "Swedish model" in Norway. In a sense Breivik is protecting his "tribe" of Norwegians against outsiders who he believes would upset and ultimately destroy the established arrangements of his society. To that end in his manifesto he advocates energy independence through development of alternatives to displace oil completely (despite the fact that Norway is one of the world's largest oil producers). This independence would free countries from the tyranny of Arab oil and thus Muslim influences. He also believes global corporations should be nationalized in order to make them serve the needs of their host countries and peoples. Nothing could set him apart from America's Tea Party more than this.

From news reports we can deduce that Breivik is a disturbed personality, but not a marginalized person. Although he was from a broken home, he grew up in a comfortable flat with his mother and received all the benefits that any child receives in Norway. Breivik's rampage wasn't meant to bring down Norwegian society. On the contrary, he believed he was trying save it and its third way.

The public's revulsion for Breivik stems not just from the audacity of his deed and the number of people he killed and maimed. The context in which those deeds took place is also a factor. He abandoned normal political means for advancing his views--something he had previously engaged in at least minimally--and he chose to advance his goals as a self-appointed vigilante for the Norwegian people. His actions smack of klan-on-klan violence, something modern nations condemn because only the state ought to be empowered to dispense justice. Anything else is private justice, essentially a family or ethnic feud, which is antithetical to order and stability.

This is the message of the ancient Greek trilogy penned by Aeschylus, the Oresteia. After Orestes' mother kills his father, Agamemnon, in order to allow her lover, a cousin to Agamemnon, to gain Agamemnon's throne, Orestes kills his mother and the new king in vengeance. Plagued by the Furies for his terrible deed, Orestes only finds relief after a criminal trial in which he is found not guilty--a statement not about his actions, but a symbolic verdict designed to put an end to the perpetual blood feud that had cursed the House of Atreus for generations and had thus interfered with the establishment of an orderly state. The supremacy of the state in dispensing justice is also symbolically affirmed, and this affirmation becomes the path to a more peaceful society, the kind that Norway represents.

Breivik's delusions led him to "defend" his society through means that undermine it and could potentially destroy it. One need only look at societies such as Afghanistan, where private justice is still practiced, to see what it means. Although Tea Party members do not explicitly espouse private justice, their broad-ranging attempts to delegitimize the public sphere have the potential to split America into a thousand pieces. It is precisely because America has so much diversity that it sorely needs a strong public sphere to bind its people. Breivik was concerned that Muslims would destroy Norway's expansive and durable public sphere which afforded its native residents so many advantages. By contrast, the Tea Party believes that the public sphere which nominally binds us ought to be weakened in favor of individual action.

And now, finally, I reveal the reason for this line of investigation. The Breivik shootings reminded me that in the last year two acquaintances have urged me on separate occasions to purchase firearms as a measure to protect myself from what they see as emerging anarchy in the United States. One cited the possibility of a race war. After some clarification, what the person seemed to be talking about was an anarchical uprising of the poor against the rich, and many of the poor in urban areas are African-American and Latino. Another cited the depredations associated with the post-peak-oil era which this person suggested was already upon us. My response to both was the same: I don't want to live in a society in which carrying firearms becomes a daily necessity.

"But what if it does become a necessity?" each acquaintance asked in his or her own way.

"Then, perhaps it will be time for me to go." Both acquaintances were suitably astonished by my answer. "Look, even in Dodge City they made people check their guns at the city line before entering," I added.

For me firearms smack of klan or private justice. Nevertheless, I condemn no one who chooses to own guns for the protection of his or her home. But I deplore the notion that guns ought to be carried in public as a matter of course. I would prefer to empower my local authorities with the necessary resources to keep the public sphere safe. I desire private justice neither from those who fire the first shot nor from those who fire the second.

Vigilante, klan, family and private justice, all are the path to barbarism today just as surely as they were when Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia. I will stand on the side of civilization for as long as I am able. The only alternative I see is what philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "a war of all against all."

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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