One of us?

Peter Svaar narrowly missed being yet another of Anders Breiviks’s victims. Svaar, a journalist for the Norwegian broadcaster NRK was on the island only 24 hours earlier to interview Jonas Store, minister for foreign affairs, who was visiting the youth camp. Had Breivik timed his attack differently, they might have met. It would have been a key moment for both of them, because they would not be meeting as strangers. A few years ago the two had been good school-friends, that was back when Breivik was a normal, cheerful adolescent: “one of us”, according to Svaar, “someone you could hang out with”.

What would have passed between the killer and the journalist, had they chanced to meet again on that fatal day? Would Breivik have left his friend alive? Could Svaar have maybe persuaded him to stop the killing? Or would he have been cut down as laconically as all the others? Would Breivik have simply said “Sorry Peter: wrong place, wrong time” before shooting him?

From survival to sin

We never really know anyone. The blood brain barrier is not the only one that separates our thoughts from our physical, external reality. Nature is not naturally truthful, but replete with deception and trickery, from aardvark to zebra, from cuckoo to chameleon. All our many human refinements of conceptual thought, character management and language only serve to beef up the already fierce arsenal of duplicity we receive as part of our birthright as a carbon-based life-form. This is all designed to help us survive, of course. And it’s perfectly fair in love and war, or so we are told. But it sure is a bitch to live with as part of our quotidian toolkit. Duplicity as polished as that of which we are capable needs a lot of handling. That’s why we have codes of morality in addition to instinct. That’s why we consider certain behaviour not just bad for the group, but actually bad per se.

The very concept of sin is duplicitous. Simply to know of it is to be tainted. Chesterton wrote that his detective, Father Brown, contemplated and wrestled with every vice, as Jacob with an angel, because only by knowing his enemy could he meet him in battle, and Sherlock Holmes needed a “2% solution” to free his powerful mind from the miasma of darkness in which it was increasingly enmeshed by his keen knowledge of evil. There is none so blameless as can remain unmarked by a wound he inflicts on another, even in the name of justice. Small wonder then, that executioners generally follow that trade from father to son, like grave-diggers. It limits the spreading of the stain. It enables us to avoid guilt by association, even association with the dirty end of the law doing its quite legitimate business.

Orders from a grasshopper

Christ told the lynch-mob that he who is free of sin should throw the first stone, and this was not lightly said, for he himself chose not to throw one, despite being sinless. Would carrying out the mandate of execution have forever tainted an otherwise spotless soul? Maybe yes. The inference is that we should always set mercy above vengeance or retribution, not only in personal matters but even in matters of law and obvious justice. Mercy is a safer bet here than the whisperings of any inner voice, however sanctified it may seem.

For part of the problem is not that we fail, like Pinocchio, to be guided aright by the constraints of a benign conscience, but rather that we tend to allow ourselves the latitude of having a conscience that is little more than a projection of our own duplicity and thus leads us astray. We would be far better off following the dictates of pure reason, as based on time-honoured moral imperatives, for then we would not throw any stone at anyone, ever.

Lone wolf justice

So what goes through the mind of a young man who sees himself as a lone wolf, an angel of retribution, an agent of some higher justice, a cleaner, a purifier? If sane, and they say he is, how can he carry out such a plan without consideration either of his own “guilt by association” in the “crime” he thinks he is avenging, the “unclean thing” he believes he is purging, or of the burden such actions will necessarily place on his own existence (quite apart from the lives of others)?

But above all, how can he fail so profoundly to realise the damage his actions will do to the very cause he professes to espouse, the pathetically outdated idea of a monolithic and monocultured nation? Because, apart from being a tagline to a very tasteless joke (How many Norwegians does it take to fill a morgue? One!), Breivik will probably go down in history as the man who gave a much-needed shot in the arm to the otherwise moribund process of multicultural engagement in northern Europe.

On his website, the gleeful killer claimed Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of pure reason” as one of the books that had influenced him the most. Methinks something must have got seriously lost in the Norwegian translation.

Edwin Drood

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