Media, Politics

Whatever happened to crazy? Why is the news media afraid to call a nut a nut

By Richard Poplak 27 July 2011

Anders Behring Breivik defies easy political or cultural labels. Why does the news media insist on calling a psychopath anything other than a psychopath? By RICHARD POPLAK.

Shortly after the Columbine massacre, in which two teenaged boys—Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—walked through a Colorado high school, shooting their peers and their teachers, the comedian Chris Rock had the following to say: “I am scared of young white boys. If you’re white and under 21, I’m running for the hills.”

This is satire. Rock is a black American, and its black Americans who are supposed to send whites scarpering for the hills. And yet Rock may wish to revise his scary white kid age limit upwards a tick— say, to 32. That’s how old Anders Behring Breivik is, the Norwegian who last week blew up an Oslo government building and, for an encore, shot to death about 68 unarmed people at a youth camp. Breivik has been dubbed many things in the media over the seven or so news cycles since he perpetrated those atrocities. He’s been called an Islamic terrorist (the default following breaking news of any shooting in Europe), a right wing extremist, a troubled mommy’s boy.

He is all of the above and, of course, none of them. In the first instance, he has done more damage to a Western country than all the Islamic terror attacks on Western soil since 9/11 combined. In his massive 1,500-page treatise, he often dovetailed with the anti-immigrant and far-right views espoused by political groups like Austria’s Freedom Party and Norway’s Progress Party. And he did seem to have a Norman Bates-like attachment to his mother, decrying his feminised upbringing in his ramblings. That said, defining Breivik’s political sensibilities through anything he has said, done or written is like asking the inmates in the asylum to write the operations handbook. And yet, we do it, time and time again.

Watch: Chris Rock – Young White Boys.

We’re best served by ignoring the misinformation and the irresponsible pandering the media spewed out post-massacre and by turning once again to Chris Rock on Columbine. “Everybody want to know what the kids was listening to…and what kind of movies was they watching. Who gives a fuck what they was watching? Whatever happened to crazy?”

What did happen to crazy?

There are almost no parallels between the Columbine massacre and the Breivik slaughter, bar one: The media rushed out to provide a political and/or cultural explanation that makes sense in the face of all the bloodshed. This is understandable, which doesn’t necessarily make it forgivable. In the case of Harris and Klebold, we were told that their musical and video game proclivities were at least partly to blame. “Killers worshipped freak Manson,” screamed a headline, referring to rock star Marilyn Manson, who featured prominently in the boys’ record collections. The ensuing moral panic brought Manson firmly into the, um, firing line and he issued statement after statement—and was the most reasoned voice in Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine”—dismissing the hysteria as nonsense.

“The media has unfairly scapegoated[sic] the music industry and so-called Goth kids and has speculated, with no basis in truth, that artists like myself are in some way to blame,” said Manson. “This tragedy was a product of ignorance, hatred and an access to guns. I hope the media’s irresponsible finger-pointing doesn’t create more discrimination against kids who look different.”

The panic against devil music has waned, and seems almost quaint—the product of a different, less-enlightened era. As video games, TV and the movies have become increasingly violent, so too have crime rates plummeted in Western countries. There are no satisfactory sociological explanations for this fact, but there does not appear to be even the slightest corollary between violence in popular culture and violence in the real world.

Which is not to say there isn’t a corollary. But the correct and responsible way to deal with the violence Klebold and Harris visited on their community was a sober assessment of the facts, followed by acknowledging that while there were a variety of factors contributing to the disaster, no solid—which is to say, neat and tidy—explanation would ever emerge. That stopped no one: Moore exploited the tragedy as a platform to advocate for gun control; the NRA exploited it as a platform to advocate for more guns in schools. This is politics in the US.

Eric Harris was, by all account, a clinical psychopath, a human being so monstrous that violence was encoded into his genetic make-up. The only place to turn to for an understanding of such creatures is art: Lionel Shriver’s best-selling novel “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is an account of a mother’s ambivalence toward her son, who will go on to kill several kids in his high school. We are left with the terrifying knowledge that in the whorl of human relationships—even the supposedly inviolable bond between mother and child—things can go wrong. There are those among us without the capacity for empathy. They are the Jokers in the pack, the wild cards who can drift among us unseen, until they unleash an unholy terror that makes us revise our understanding of ourselves. In the book’s tragic coda, when Kevin’s mother asks him why he did it, all he can say is, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.”

Which brings us back to Anders Behring Breivik. As more of the facts emerge, and as he engages more and more with his befuddled lawyer, it is clear Breivik is of the Eric Harris mould. Psychological assessments will undoubtedly prove that he is insane and that his professed affiliations—political or otherwise—exist only in his mind.

Breivik is not, as he has been called in almost every newspaper with website, an extremist. This is a misstatement. He does not, as The New York Times preposterously asserted in a piece two days after the massacre, highlight the rising rightwing in Europe. He is, in Chris Rock’s economical parsing, crazy.

But crazy isn’t political. It doesn’t serve an agenda, and it doesn’t buy into an editorial point of view. Breivik certainly used a hodgepodge of rightwing rhetoric and libertarian piffle to justify his “war” against the Norwegian political establishment, and he was no fan of Muslims or multiculturalism. But those were the straw men in his crusade. Breivik, armed and dangerous, could have entered a mosque or an immigrant neighbourhood and perpetrated the single largest massacre of Muslims in Europe since the Balkan war. And before we accuse the rightwing in Europe of embedding violence in their messaging, thus inciting a nut like Breivik, let’s remember the following: Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, from whom the Norwegian plagiarised heavily for his own treatise, used the rhetoric of the leftwing and the environmental lobby to justify his actions. Breivik chose to shoot up an island full of versions of himself. There was no meaningful logic to his actions. I could offer some Psychology 101 bromides about manic narcissism, but I’ll refrain.

Thirteen years after Columbine, we continue to tart crazy up in political or cultural clobber. While Norway buries its dead children, the media does their memory a disservice by turning Breivik into something he is not. He is what our ancestors would have called a monster. He’s what Chris Rock calls crazy. Evil begs for an affiliation. We never fail to give it one. DM

Photo: A picture of Anders Behring Breivik taken from a book downloaded from a link posted on the Norwegian discussion website,, and entitled “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence”, is seen in this screen grab made July 23, 2011. The 2083 book is signed by an Andrew Berwick, the author says within the document that Andrew Berwick is an Anglicised version of Anders Breivik. Anders Behring Breivik, 32, was arrested after Friday’s massacre of young people on a tiny forested holiday island that was hosting the annual summer camp for the youth wing of Norway’s ruling Labour party. Breivik, a Norwegian, was also charged with the bombing of Oslo’s government district that killed seven people hours earlier. It was not possible to verify who uploaded link to the book, which was posted on July 22. REUTERS/Andrew Berwick


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