Human horror, in cold blood

Beyond the political delusions that pushed Anders Breivik to assassinate more than 70 people, it is evil in it most imbecile form that was revealed by his actions, says Italian writer Claudio Magris.

Published on 1 August 2011 at 14:19

As long as there is no irrefutable proof – and finding any is, for the moment, highly unlikely – of a terrorist conspiracy, the unbelievable Norwegian massacre must be considered as a news item of appalling proportion but a news item, nonetheless. There are certainly, across the globe, many terrorist associations, often with opposing views, capable of any atrocity but there also exists a crime – even more mysterious and worrisome, precisely because it is often unmotivated – which is conceived, organised and implemented by the mind of a single individual, outside of any political project, albeit a delusional one.

As Pierluigi Battista wrote in Corriere, to always search for a plot (because of his rational manner despite his perversity), for a political or sociological explanation, or for a precise collective project, is a subconscious way to reassure, to identify the act to some order, however abject. It is a way to give way to divagations on enigmatic plots, which are fundamentally terrifying yet involuntarily gratifying, in the same way that it is gratifying to linger over vague images of a nightmare, of horror or of fear. Understanding or attempting to understand provides comfort; even a superior satisfaction. Faced with so many unresolved offenses, opinions on their more or less murky intentions seem more important (and take up more space in the newspapers) than the investigations, which, in the early stages, are nonetheless, the first and perhaps the only thing that matters.

Certainly, as a slogan from the 60s – often used every which way, but nonetheless true – points out ‘everything is political’. No one comes from the moon. Whether one is an antisocial misanthrope or the most gregarious man around, each man is a thread in the world in which he lives; he absorbs it at least in part; adds to his DNA what seeps in, consciously or not, from outside reality. There is no passion, habit, desire, fear or behaviour that belongs to us alone. It is true, as philosophers in school-books used to say, that the individual is unspeakable or at least there is within each of us something unspeakable, but this elusive and mobile shadow that is our heart is also woven of sociability.

The infinite banality of evil

That said, there is a clear difference between the individual action of a single person and the group project of an organisation, even if it is accomplished by a single person. There is a strong probability that the Norwegian murderer can be assimilated to serial killers or Jack the Ripper – also threads in their time – rather than to the Italicus assassins [who blew up an Italicus train in 1974, killing 12 people], or of the Piazza Fontana attack [17 killed in Milan in 1969]. It would be vile to use his name to blacken any political movement. His atrocious action shows the constant, latent power of evil; its ability to go berserk at any time. It reveals that we live in daily cohabitation, elbow to elbow, with evil, which is always on the watch and ready for action.

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This butchery of human beings also showed the infinite banality, the imbecility of evil and of violence, which are so often presented in an inviting package as expressions of some unknown but profound hellish truths. Jack the Ripper’s knife seems to have fascinated many people who have seen the sword of a diabolical angel, rather than slashed bellies. Nor did they see the suffering of the women he killed, the only real protagonists of this tragic story in which he plays but a minor role, albeit a damned one. Shamefully, and yet inevitably, the name that lives on is that of the assassin, not of his victims.

The mechanical and repeated shots of the assassin felling his victims can be compared to a monstrous assembly line. He, too, naturally, is a man whose humanity is not exhausted by his crimes, a man who must be tried but also protected according to the principal that the law is equal for all, including for the cruellest of assassins; a man probably prey to his obsessions, his suffering, his fears.

One can and one must have respect for such a man – beyond the legal definition of his actions and their requisite sentence – but not according to the banal rhetoric of evil – but because he is an assassin, or rather despite the fact that he is an assassin. His offence is not only the most horrible, but also the stupidest, the most mechanical, the most narrow-minded, of his life.

Fundamentalism has nothing to do with tradition

The killer of more than seventy people seems to define himself as a fundamentalist Christian,” a senseless term. Often fundamentalism is, erroneously, identified with radicalism, especially religious, of one faith or another – these days usually Islam – and, in general, to any particularly intolerant form of religious traditionalism. Fundamentalism has little, if anything, to do with tradition, especially not with that which is considered the jealous guardian of the observance and the immobility of a dogma. Fundamentalism is not a traditional phenomenon rooted in the past but is a purely modern phenomenon characteristic of mass societies and of globalisation, such as fascism is a modern totalitarian phenomenon radically different from authoritarian regimes of the past.

The murderous finger pulling mechanically on the trigger should not induce reflections on rich and peaceful societies such as Norway or other dissertations of that sort. Other forms of evil – and these are political, social or collective – come from backward and barbarian societies just as much as from societies considered open and civil, considered models of democracy such as Holland or certain Scandinavian countries where aggressive xenophobic movements in clear contradiction with the traditions of these countries are making headway.

If xenophobia is stronger in Holland than in Spain, it is perhaps because the culture of the latter, like that of other countries, has maintained a higher sense of the sacredness of life, which makes a clear distinction between the many values constantly called into question, and those two or three essential values – such as equality for all citizens regardless of gender, ethnic background, religion or whatever – which we must consider as absolute, indisputable and non-negotiable. Many values, almost all, must be optional, but not all.

When ‘everything is possible,’ as a horrified Dostoyevsky wrote, the world becomes horrible. But the blame cannot be thrown on the Norwegian assassin who is neither fundamentalist nor Christian. It is more than enough to attribute to him the murder of seventy people.

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