Anders Breivik: Lone Wolf or Poster Boy?

by Arezou Rezvani

Hours before Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in dual terror attacks in Norway last summer, the 33-year-old right-wing nationalist wrote that his trial would be a “golden opportunity” to spread his ideas. This detail along with the smiles and closed-fisted salutes in the courtroom are what the news media have used to paint a portrait of a madman, a bad apple in Europe's orchard of multiculturalism. What has not yet been recognized, though, is that the trial may also be a golden opportunity for mainstream journalists, who have generally framed faith-fueled incidents of terror as aberrations and not indicators of broader or deeper patterns.

Since Breivik's public trial began a week ago in an Oslo criminal court, it is his in-court behavior that has grabbed international headlines. In its April 24 headline, Spiegel asked readers, “How Sick is Norwary's Mass Murderer?” Israel's Arutz Sheva headlined an article with “Breivik Smiles as Witnesses Call Him 'Absurd' and 'Crazy.'” In the International Business Times, an analysis of the trial was titled “Top Most Inflammatory Instances of His Behavior in Court.” Across the board, the media has given Breivik's psychological profile overwhelming attention compared to the modest coverage of whether Breivik's acts and attitudes are perhaps indicative of broad but subtle shifts in non-Muslim sentiment toward Europe's growing Muslim population.

The reluctance to zero in on anything beyond Breivik's psychological profile may stem from the media's hesitation to place Breivik's extreme views on the continuum of public opinion. The valid concern is that doing so would give him the opportunity to publicize his anti-Muslim manifesto. But stifling these views and avoiding the attendant questions about their pervasiveness diminishes the prospects for the kind of cross-cultural or interfaith conversation that might diffuse tensions and debunk myths. Conversely, it hinders any acknowledgment that even a modest anti-Muslim movement is sure to grow if ignorance goes unchallenged. Thus the media's reluctance to consider Breivik to be anything more than a deranged lone wolf limits any meaningful investigation of the extent to which he may actually embody quietly increasing Islamophobic sentiment across Europe.

Breivik's diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia by a court-appointed psychiatrist surely deserves mention in any coverage that seeks to provide a full account of the trial and the background of the accused. But news organizations' conscious decision to exclude the broader context of Breivik's actions promotes a sense of collective denial around the “other-izing” of Europe's growing Muslim population. This denial, of course, allows governments to avoid crafting measures that would truly address the real force behind acts of terror—fear of the foreign and the foreigner.

Viewed by some as a fluff form of policy, interfaith dialogue initiatives have played an insufficient role in domestic and international politics. But the fact of the matter is that when the myth of “Eurabia” — the alleged Islamization or Arabization of Europe — inspires a day of mass murder in Norway, or when Iran's President Ahmadinejad questions the Holocaust, the knee-jerk tendency to label such individuals as lunatics obscures what may actually be broader views that are difficult or painful to acknowledge. While the ideas of such individuals may be extreme and their claims outlandish, acknowledging the extent to which their worldviews are commonly held is the only way that policies aimed at eliminating extremist attitudes can be crafted.  

With Breivik's trial well underway, the global media's framing of the proceedings will determine to what extent governments will take responsibility for building bridges between communities along ethnic and religious lines. So long as the narrative remains limited to Breivik's psychological health, the media's golden opportunity belongs to Breivik alone.

Arezou Rezvani is currently a National News Desk Assistant at NPR West in Los Angeles and a Dean's Scholar at the University of Southern California Annenberg Graduate School of Journalism. Arezou also serves as a project associate at the Knight Digital Media Center, an organization that provides New Media training for journalists at all levels. Previously, Arezou was an educational outreach coordinator for an Emmy Award-winning independent film company in Berkeley, where she developed an outreach strategy around the documentary “Our Summer In Tehran,” a film that touches on themes of cultural diplomacy, inter-faith dialogue and U.S.-Iran/U.S.-Muslim relations.

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