An irresponsible impromptu on Utøya

The scale of Breivik’s macabre achievement is likely to dwarf any political dimension it may turn out to have

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The intelligentsia spent Friday afternoon spinning madly like the Fates, weaving a tapestry of anticipated political repercussions from the emerging factual matter of Norwegian terrorism. But the continued unravelling of events has left their handiwork in tatters. The almost comforting familiarity of a conventional terrorist attack in a European city has been superseded by a nightmarish cadenza: the most effective peacetime spree killing in human history—perpetrated by a lone individual on a microscopic resort island owned by a young socialists’ organization.

According to the information available at this hour, the killer appears to be some sort of right-wing Muslim-hating Freemason who set off a bomb in Oslo and then travelled quickly, in police garb, to the isle of Utøya. There, he claimed to be conducting a “security check” and was able to round up young attendees at a political summer camp. He opened fire, killing 84 to go with the estimated seven dead in the capital. Norwegian police indicate that Anders Behring Breivik had an automatic weapon, but he does not appear to have detonated any explosives; students of the morbid will recall that the acknowledged dean of spree killers, South Korean policeman Woo Bum-Kon, used grenades in the 1982 all-night murder-bender that killed 57.

The scale of Breivik’s macabre achievement, a Beamonesque leap beyond the known limits of mayhem possible to a lone armed person, is likely to dwarf any political dimension it may turn out to have. There is nothing remarkable in itself about a Norwegian killing Norwegians for articulable political reasons, even if Europe’s endless argument over Islam is somehow implicated. We have all learned the ironclad rule: in liberal democracies, Islamic terror leads to little more than creeping incremental change in any policy concerning Muslims—but it produces massive instant growth in the security apparatus of the state, and in the low-level panic that nourishes it.

From this point of view, intelligent terrorists who display careful premeditation and tactical sophistication have a legitimately greater impact on history than improvisational nutjobs. Breivik has created a lot of problems for those who must anticipate and deflect copycats. He was not the usual despondent psychotic for whom the death toll was tangential to his private pain; his surprising survival of the attack proves this, as does his apparent care in delivering coups de grace to his victims. (He will undoubtedly present a laceratingly sharp edge case to the famously cuddly Norwegian corrections system—much as Napoleon did to the international law of his time, or as Osama bin Laden would have, had he been taken alive. A Norwegian cannot technically even be sentenced to life in prison.)

Breivik employed the Palestinian logic, hitherto almost unknown amongst Western-style spree killers (though implemented at Columbine), of the delayed second attack that specifically takes advantage of the chaos of the first. Indeed, he seems to have contemplated a third attack by leaving a bomb behind on Utøya. He is the first spree killer I am aware of to use an island as a trap. We may expect that having fun on an island in any kind of mass, congregational setting—a concert, an arts festival—is practically proscribed for the foreseeable future.

One can predict, too, the effects that Breivik’s use of a police disguise will have. He probably wore nothing very elaborate; as streetwear for cops has gotten increasingly “practical” and comfortable, dispensing with touches like epaulettes and braided lanyards and Sam Browne belts, it has become easier to mimic the police using nothing more than ordinary clothing catalogues and perhaps a little screenprinting equipment. Since police everywhere are supreme exponents of the “easier for us” principle, we can probably expect them to organize bans on certain colours and styles of casual clothing, rather than themselves returning to a more formal costuming style that resists counterfeiting.

Perhaps I am wrong, and this is merely an irresponsible musing on an inappropriate occasion. I’m willing to bet that it holds up better, at any rate, than the half-day of speculation about “Islamism” that we have just been through. For a few hours I was as willing as anyone to believe that the terrorist responsible for the dual attack in Norway was Just Another Middle-Eastern Wacko. But even before the spotlight shifted to a B-movie blond beast, I found myself wondering: what difference does it make? Since 9/11 we have witnessed outrages by Muslims and outrages by non-Muslims, with hardly a difference in the effects. Indeed, in venues like airports, subways, and bus stations, the suffering is distributed to the citizenry with explicit randomness. The simple rule is that the terrorists win every time.