What Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and American "birthers" have in common.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 26 2011 4:37 PM

Anders Behring Breivik and the Crisis of Legitimacy

What the Norwegian murderer and American "birthers" have in common.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the tragedy in Norway. 

Anders Breivik. Click image to expand.
Anders Behring Breivik

In the past 48 hours, Anders Behring Breivik has been described as a racist, a white supremacist, and an anti-Islamic fanatic. News reports of his arrest are now accompanied by analyses of Europe's failure to absorb its immigrant population, by commentary on the rise of far-right political parties, by discussions of the threats posed to Muslims living in Europe. Having mistakenly assumed that the story of terror in Oslo belonged to the narrative of the war on terrorism, we are now placing it firmly within the equally familiar narrative of white racism and anti-Islamic fanaticism.

Aren't we missing the point once again? Breivik was not, in fact, a killer of immigrants or Muslims. He was a killer of Norwegians. The particular set of obsessions that led him to madness and then to mass murder were not merely racist. They also sprang from an insane conviction that his own government was illegitimate.

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This particular form of obsession is not new. Nor is it confined to blond, white, racist Norwegians. Raskolnikov, the hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, brutally murdered a pawnbroker in the name of a vaguely defined "freedom" that was not available in decadent, czarist St. Petersburg. Since then, revolutionaries and madmen of all kinds, from the Russian anarchists to the Irish Republican Army, have justified the murder of innocent people on the grounds that it would hasten the end of an illegitimate government and bring to power some theoretically more authentic regime.

In contemporary America, we also have people who are—and I am inventing this word here—illegitimists: They believe that the president of the United States is illegitimately elected, or that the country is ruled by a cabal that is in turn controlled by some other sinister force or forces. In the past, left-wing illegitimists were quite common, and in fact Marxism is a classic, paranoid version of this creed. The illegitimist Marxist argument goes like this: Bourgeois democracy is a sham; bourgeois politicians and the bourgeois newspapers are tools of shadowy financial interests. The entire system deserves to be overthrown—and if a few people die in the course of the revolution, it's all for a good cause. Though not every Western Marxist advocated violence, this is certainly the kind of argument that motivated the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and other far-left American and European terrorists of the past.

There is also a right-wing version of this argument, one that has been honed to perfection by novelist Charles McCarry (in Lucky Bastard, he imagines that the Bill Clinton-like American president is a Communist agent and his Hillary-like wife is his controller). More recently, right-wing illegitimism has taken the form of birtherism. The attempt to prove that Barack Obama isn't American-born was, at base, an attempt to prove that he is illegitimate and that he therefore deserves to be removed from power—somehow. birtherism is also linked to other forms of illegitimism, such as the belief that Obama is a Muslim, and is thus controlled by international jihadists, or the belief that he is "Kenyan" and thus motivated by anti-colonial hatred of white people in general and Americans in particular. It is not accidental that the one note of sympathy for Breivik in the U.S. media came from the lips of birtherist and illegitimist Glenn Beck, who helpfully compared the young Norwegians murdered by Breivik to "Hitler Youth." Presumably if they are Hitler Youth, then they deserved to die?

Democracy, as a political system, has clear disadvantages, many of which are on display in Washington this week. But democracy has one overwhelming advantage: If conducted according to a pre-arranged set of rules, and if all sides accept those rules, democratic elections produce legitimate political leaders. In addition to being insane, Breivik doesn't accept the rules of democracy in Norway—and now we see the result. Let's hope no Americans ever follow his example.

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