We hope, and perhaps need, a man who would gun down teenagers in cold blood to be mad. How could a man who is not insane carry out such heinous acts? What possible justification could make anyone act so barbarously? And yet all around the world when others have carried out atrocities of similar horror -- from the genocidaires of Rwanda to the al Qaeda butchers of Baghdad -- those of us lucky enough to live in the safe and comfortable global north have asked -- what made them do it? Their political ideology? Their interpretation of their religion? Calling them mad is not enough.
So when Anders Behring Breivik says that his killing spree on Friday, July 22, was "gruesome but necessary" -- as he reportedly told his lawyer -- we must not just dismiss him as mad, but ask why he thinks so. Having left a 1,500-page manifesto and a YouTube video -- all conveniently in serviceable English for the international audience -- he clearly wants to be understood.
To do so requires an appreciation of a transatlantic movement that often calls itself "the counter-jihad." As his writings indicate, Breivik is clearly a product of this predominantly web-based community of anti-Muslim, anti-government, and anti-immigration bloggers, writers, and activists -- no matter how much the movement's leading lights may deny this and denounce his actions.
Many of the first articles in the international media trying to understand Breivik called him a far-right extremist. While this is perhaps true in the widest sense, the label confuses more than it explains. The postwar European far-right has tended to be neo-Nazi and fascist. Most of these groups, be they political parties in some countries or barely organized football hooligans in others, have on the whole shared an obsession with Jews as the evil "other," and the connections and cross-fertilization between European fascists and the North American far-right in its various forms -- from the Christian Identity movement to right-wing militias to some so-called paleoconservatives -- has long been well documented and understood.
In contrast, the counter-jihad movement defines itself in part in opposition to neo-Nazis, indeed taking great pains to attempt to show that the Nazis were "socialists." This is taken to rather silly lengths where modern European social democrats (and even U.S. President Barack Obama and American Democrats) are called "socialists" alongside other "socialists" like Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Marx, and -- of course -- Hitler. Breivik's manifesto reproduces in full an essay by a well-known Norwegian counter-jihad writer called only "Fjordman" that argues that socialists and Nazis are one. This may seem ridiculous to anyone with a grasp of modern world history, but clearly was very important in leading Breivik to target a youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party.
The opposition to neo-Nazism is most visible in the counter-jihad's overt philo-Semitism. This takes the form of a strong defense of Israel and the policies of Israeli right-wing parties, including the denial of there being "occupied territories" -- only Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the West Bank. This has led to the inclusion in the counter-jihad movement of various hawkish American voices, both Jewish -- for example, Daniel Pipes -- and some Christian evangelicals. And whereas anti-Semitism is banished, it has been replaced with a rabid fear of Islam and of Muslims. Nevertheless, by focusing on the religion and culture of European Muslims being a threat, along with its proud philo-Semitism, the movement deems itself to be non-racist.