Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Atrocity and Empathy: How to Answer Anders Breivik’s Desire to Speak

Anders Behring Breivik, the homegrown Norwegian terrorist responsible for murdering close to a hundred Norwegians on Friday, wants a chance to explain why he did it—or more precisely, why his acts were “atrocious but necessary”. It’s as if he thinks mass murder should give one a public platform.

In a sense, it already has: Who would’ve paid attention to his more-than-thousand-page manifesto and other internet writings (or helpful summaries of them) before he set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and then went on a killing rampage at a youth summer camp?

Other extremists, perhaps. Scholars trying to understand the character of European neofascism and related groups. Anti-terrorism agencies trying (imperfectly) to anticipate when words and bluster are about to spill over into overt violence. But the general public? Before Breivik’s horrific acts, they could’ve cared less.

And their indifference is perfectly justified. Breivik has nothing new to say. He’s just repeating the same old formula of hate. Jean-Paul Sartre already provided a brilliant analysis of the psychological underpinnings of that formula in his classic Anti-Semite and Jew. Recently deceased Brown philosopher John Ladd has helpfully spelled out the main structure and precepts of ideological group hatred, in the pursuit of an understanding of what drives collective violence, why it’s so intractable, and how we might respond (I've outlined his thinking in the last chapter of Is God a Delusion?, but the original article appears in the anthology Justice, Law, and Violence). These things are worth reading, if only for the sake of recognizing in ourselves the attenuated traces of such thinking, the stamp of ancient tribalism.

Breivik fills in Ladd’s framework with his own anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalist details. But it’s the same old stuff. He embodies and lives out the psychology Sartre described. But explosions and atrocity don’t make this sludge any more worthwhile.

Nevertheless, our need to understand drives us towards news accounts of who he was and what motivated him. The need to understand what lies behind atrocities is very basic, and I think it is especially felt by the victims—both direct and indirect—of horror. “How could you?” is not simply a rhetorical question.

And so I say let him speak.

But not yet. If he spoke now it would just be the same drivel we’ve heard before, devoid of insight. All he knows is his mad rhetoric. He doesn’t yet understand how such falsehoods, such twisted ideas about reality and the human condition, could drive him to do what he did. At this moment he remains under the delusion that he did what he did because it was justified. Justified. Sharing such delusions will not answer our need. It will not answer the anguished “How could you?”

And so I say let him speak, but not before all the surviving victims, the families and loved ones of the victims, and all those affected by Friday’s horror have first had the opportunity to confront him with their pain and rage and loss. This may take awhile.

And it isn’t enough that the victims have the chance to confront the man who shattered so many lives. They need for him to really hear and understand.

In other words, let him speak, but only after his surviving victims have not only had their say, but succeeded in breaking through the defensive walls of ideology and self righteousness that keep people like Breivik from truly comprehending the experiences of their victims and confronting the evil of what they’ve done.

Let him speak, but first make sure that “atrocity” is more than just a word to him. Require that before making his case for what he did, he sincerely feel in his very bones the trauma of each child he stalked and the shattering agony of those whose loved ones were lost to his bullets and his bomb.

After all, what does it mean to say an atrocity is “necessary”? Breivik surely does not mean that he was determined by the laws of physics to do what he did—in which case we should view Breivik’s actions in the way we view deadly volcanic eruptions and tornados. Breivik doesn’t mean that. He means that his murderous acts had to be done in order to achieve a greater good.

In other words, Breivik wants to say that the “good” achieved by his deeds is greater than the evil done. If that’s what he wants to say, then let’s insist he actually try to understand the magnitude of the evil he’s done. And he won’t understand that until he can genuinely empathize with those he’s harmed.

My first cousin’s daughter, Marin, was in downtown Oslo when the bomb exploded. My relatives in Norway were frantic, terrified they’d lost this promising, beautiful life just before she was about to embark on a high school exchange year in the United States. Thankfully she was safe, in a different part of the city from where the bomb exploded.

But two of her cousins were less lucky. They were at camp.

No one immediately understood the magnitude of this greater crime at the campground on Utøya island, this mass murder of children and young adults—no one except those who were there. Marin’s cousins were. Both survived, although the older sister was shot in the leg and lay for an hour surrounded by the corpses of her friends, listening to him shooting and, as she describes it, whooping with glee (her harrowing account--in Norwegian, I'm afraid--can be found here). The younger sister played dead and was not physically injured.

Both survived, and yet I do not doubt that something profound was killed in each of them that day. Witnesses reported that Breivik was being meticulous about his murderous work, and so was blowing the heads off of those who were already on the ground. Marin’s cousins survived because they were lucky, because Breivik didn’t have time to finish his work. Did they know that he was walking among the dead, putting a bullet in each brain? What would that have done to them? What was shattered in them by what Breivik did that day?

Perhaps it was the capacity for trust, for optimism, or for sleeping peacefully at night. So let’s tell Breivik that before he’s allowed to make his case to the Norwegian people, he must first share the terrified dreams of each survivor. He must wake up screaming as he imagines himself swimming desperately for safety, unwilling to trust the boats coming to help him. He must sob through dreams of lying in a heap of dead bodies as a murderous madman fires again and again, extinguishing human lives for the sake of an ideology of hate utterly disconnected from Goodness and Truth.

Until he is in a position to demonstrate that he is not just pretending empathy, but really feels every bullet fired as if it were shot into his own flesh, every bit of shattered glass as if it were tearing through his torso…until he experiences the magnitude of the evil he’s done as if it were shredding him from within…until then, he should not be allowed to make his case. Because until he feels all these things, he won’t understand the atrocity he wants to call necessary.

There’s another name for what I’m describing. It’s the pain of redemption. It’s the experiencing of being welded back into the good, and seeing what one has done from the standpoint of the good. To stand at such a place—the only standpoint from which anyone can, with authority, declare that achieving an aim is worth the cost—is to experience with absolute clarity the depths of one’s own evil, and to experience it as one who is devoted fully and truly to the good.

There is no anguish greater than this. It is hell. And in this sense of “hell” I hope to God that hell is real. Because hell in this sense is no different from salvation.

Of course, when Breivik meets this condition for being given the opportunity to speak—when he is redeemed—he’ll see that his aims in perpetrating horror were nothing more that the projections of his ideological hatred, and hence, being evil, could not possibly outweigh the atrocity of his means. He’ll come to see what he’s done as evil all the way down.

Is it possible for someone like Breivik to be redeemed in this way? I believe it is, but this belief is a religious one. A religious hope. It is the hope that the kind of God described by Christianity is real. If so, then love wins. If so, then Breivik will experience something more profound than the outward suffering that condemnation and punishment can inflict. If so, then the power of ideological hatred will not ultimately prevail, even in the hearts of its most brutal advocates.

But if there is a transcendent God like this, our experience of evil rampant, of horrors unchecked in this life, speaks to a distance between us and the divine. It is a distance imposed, perhaps, by the strictures of material existence, of time and space—a divine withdrawal necessitated by the logic of creation, by the need to fashion a space for that-which-is-not-God (an idea expressed in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum). In such a world, we cannot sit and wait for God. We must be His instruments, through which redemptive power can move and change the world—or the twisted spirit of a man like Breivik. And even our wrath, our outraged “Look what you’ve done! Look and understand!”—in other words, our insistence that the agents of atrocity empathize with their victims—even this can be a channel for redemptive grace.

My hope is that Goodness is, in the end, strong enough to blaze like sunlight even into the darkest places, even into the souls of the damned.

When it does, then by all means let Breivik speak. Until then, let him listen in silence.


  1. "Is it possible for someone like Breivik to be redeemed in this way? I believe it is, but this belief is a religious one."

    Sorry to differ, but this is not necessarily a religious belief, but a psychological and ethical one. Psychological, because you believe it is possible for a perpetrator to have his mind changed by the influence of others- perhaps his victims, perhaps the unity of the social system against him, perhaps the grinding process of the justice system, perhaps sheer solitude and reflection. And ethical, because you are sure that he is wrong and you are right, and that given enough time and reason, he can not fail to see the errors of his ways, which are very simple ones of failure of compassion, identification with false/superficial groupings, and wild intemperance in word and action.

    If god were in her heaven, this would not have happened. Appealing to her now doesn't alter the past, or indeed, the future. Perhaps she is a totem for social cohesion and ethical goodness, but that would be more a language tic & metaphor than a serious theory of reality, especially considering that the perpetrator used the same totem for his own purposes.

    Thanks for the Sartre citation- that sounds excellent. I doubt he would have given god a significant role in this or other events.

  2. Burk--I don't think the categories of "religious belief", "psychological belief", and "ethical belief" are mutually exclusive. I'm inclined to treat the belief as both psychological (human psychology is such that it can be transformed by the influence of others) and ethical (I DO think that the systematic slaughter of innocent human beings of the sort witnessed on Friday is morally wrong, and that Breivik is mistaken to think otherwise).

    As to your statement, "If god were in her heaven, this would not have happened"--you know I'm well aware of the argument from evil. (And I cannot see how you can say this and persist in rejecting the objectivity of evil as you do, by the way--but that's another matter). There's plenty of fodder for that argument apart from Breivik's additions. I readily grant that certain conceptions of God--as sovereign micromanager, for example--cannot be reconciled with events like this (at least not without turning God into a moral monster). But I'm not convinced the same can be said for a God conceived along the lines of the kabbalistic theology of Tzitzum (which bears some resemblance to the deistic God in terms of a notion of divine withdrawal after creation, except that the withdrawal is only in one respect--but that comparison/contrast might actually be an interesting subject for a blog post, so I'll stop there).

  3. This article you have written has made me cry again. I was hoping you had no victims in your family. I am so very sorry. I do not understand why we are breeding so many sociopaths in this world right now. The disconnect between the heart and the brain is increasing at such an alarming rate we as a human race must be doing something wrong. Please keep writing. We, the members of the EU, stand with Norway.

  4. "And I cannot see how you can say this and persist in rejecting the objectivity of evil as you do, by the way ..."

    Very interesting, and surprising, actually. I didn't mean to imply that I take such a theology seriously, whether to explain evil, or to address it, but only made a note from within the tradition. Perhaps you meant my other comments about the clear ethical failings of the perpetrator, which one certainly would like to portray in objective, categorical terms.

    But aren't we at this minute killing people in Afghanistan, by a painstakingly constucted rationale of the most good for the most number, in addition to self-protection? The Norwegian perpetrator was mistaken in his view that his fellow Norwegians were behind him rather than against him, but he was pursuing similarly constructed aims with some twisted version of ultimate good in sight, by what I fully concur are demented means. Ultimate goods may require paradoxical and difficult sacrifices, and whether either the ultimate good or the proximate means are acceptable are all matters of subjective judgement among competent citizens ... who in addition judge each other subjectively on the matter of their moral competence. One is reminded of the Soviet practice of putting dissidents in mental institutions- a truly Orwellian evil.

    Indeed, it seems dangerous to portray such choices as objective, removing essential humanity and humility from the equation. On the other hand, I guess it tends to amount to the same thing in practice, as objective moral adherents will typically cite some new "revelation" or "discernment" to have validated the switch from white to black or vice versa- hate to love, patriarchy to women's rights, slavery to freedom, gay oppression to gay rights, etc. The lesson from Norway is that everyone thinks their morals are objective, whatever side they are on- it is another comforting myth. Even if morals were objective, we can never be certain of what they are, so we wouldn't benefit anyhow, unless the universe issued them directly to us in triplicate on golden tablets, etc. and so forth. A not-uncommon fantasy conjured for the very best of reasons, of course!

    I'll admit that it is hard to make this case other than by assertion. But isn't that by itself indicative? Isn't the burden on those claiming objectivity to show that property, rather than subjectivity, which functions as the default? Saying that "everyone thinks so" as a mode of proof is probably more supportive of subjectivity, incidentally.

  5. As an occasional reader of your blog, and admirer of your work, I just wanted to say how terribly sorry I was to hear that your family had been affected this way, and am glad it was not worse. I'll keep your relatives in my thoughts, along with those who were murdered.

  6. Eric thank you for sharing this. I can hear and sense your wanting to get at the mind of this man, and make him know and understand in the deepest sense, what he has done. As a christian, I too believe evil can be redeemed into good, into something many times greater than the original evil. However, the redemption in this tragedy may come in a way that has nothing to do with this atrocious man, personally. I too in my heart pray that there is some spark of humanity in this man, that can be gotten to through the seemingly layers and layers of darkness and insanity. But for me , I beleieve there are some humans among us who are sociopaths or psychopaths who are just plain incapable of human empathy ever. this man may be one of these, time will tell. He may be just "too evil" to put it simply. But i will pray for him nonetheless along with those who suffered so horribly, the living and the dead. God has told me to pray for those whom I can not in my human understanding, fathom at all.

  7. Eventually, the interviews will come with insights...
    interview with Bundy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAbAV6Uus7g&feature=related

  8. Hi Eric

    Like Burk, I too continue to reject the objectivity of evil, or at least our certain knowledge of it. I wonder if framing our responses to human tragedies in terms of good and evil may not create some unhelpful biases.

    So for example, along with the world, I watch in horror at the famine unfolding in the Horn of Africa, and understand enough of the geopolitical forces involve to acknowledge my own culpability. We have known for a long time this one was coming, and in the end a failure of empathy means that the mobilisation of concern and action required will come too late for very many thousands. In essence, our own predisposition towards tribalism, the ability to dismiss Africa as somewhere further out near the edge of our circle of concern, or beyond it even, allows this great pain to flourish.

    Should we call ourselves evil then, and demand of one another that until we truly empathize with the pain of the parent who holds a starving child (and the picture of it is enough to bring tears to my eyes) we must not speak of this thing that we do, or try to offer one another our explanations? This feels like the wrong frame of reference to me.

    The good vs evil construct has tremendous narrative power, not least because those doing the telling are always implicitly on the side of self-defined good. This narrative pull means the world's media will treat these two tragedies in quite different ways, which is one of many reasons why I am uncomfortable with the word evil.


  9. Bernard: I am strongly resistant to the use of the terms "good" and "evil" as labels for people, either individuals or groups. I have less trouble calling actions (such as the mass murder of kids), states of affairs (such as deep poverty under conditions of plenty), isolated motives (such as the furthering of an in-group/out-group ideology), etc., evil--but with due caution concerning human fallibility, and with the qualification that most actions, states of affairs, and total motives are a complex mix, such that one can rarely say that this or that situation is wholly bad or good.

    It is because I resist caling persons evil that I find the redemption of someone like Breivik coherent.

    Let me be clear that when I say that for now Breivik should listen in silence, I do not mean this as a formula for every instance of tragedy caused by human action. Often it is only in and through open dialogue that we come to really recognize and take responsibility for our complicity in human suffering. Nor am I saying that such dialogue--in a non-public context, with those willing to engage him and familiar with and prepared to confront his psychology--should be denied Breivik. But a public platform would not merely reward mass murder. It would compound the suffering of Breivik's victims--a kind of further attack.

  10. Breivic strikes me as a deranged person, and if he is then his actions were not really evil. I suppose evil acts after some point evidence a deranged condition. I suppose all evil evidences a spiritual handicap, a sickness of the soul.

    What I find much more worrying than what Breivic did is the disproportional world reaction to it. I think the way we have become used and apathetic to the really big evils in the world and only get roused when some extraordinary event takes place - especially when we can put a big distance between the perpetrators and ourselves - is a big evil by itself. People are dying by the millions for lack of basic necessities, more millions die every year because of legal drugs such as tobacco, thousands of young women (actually many are children) die trying to get an illegal abortion, insufficient education condemns untold millions to a life of misery, weapons of mass destruction are being built by most rich societies, major wars are waged on false pretences, social justice is getting worse worldwide, the environment is quickly being destroyed. And who’s, by action or inaction, perpetrating all these evils? Certainly not the Unabomber, or Osama bin Laden, or Breivic.