My vantage point on the terrible massacre in Norway comes from research I have been conducting on the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
Many guerrilla groups are essentially armies without the infrastructure of a state to support them but with a similar ethos and a similar type of recruit. Most of those who make up guerrilla organizations (ranging from the Spanish rebels who helped expel Napoleon from their country to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement which has just created the new state of South Sudan) are similar to the soldiers of conventional militaries: that is, they may commit atrocities sometimes, but most are not psychopaths. Nor are they intellectuals who have given much deep thought to their cause. They are simply men doing a job, fighting for a movement in which most people in their community believe.
Some terrorist groups–primarily those of a nationalist bent—have had a similar makeup: e.g., the IRA or the Irgun. Their leaders, from Menachem Begin to Michael Collins and Gerry Adams, have shown themselves capable of renouncing violence and adopting to peaceful democratic norms.
But the majority of terrorists are different. No matter what group or ideology they represent—whether the anarchists, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or al-Qaeda—they tend to draw recruits from the disaffected, marginal quarters of society. Although it is a myth that most terrorists are crazy, there is little doubt such marginal groups tend to have a higher percentage of crazies than more mainstream military organizations. They are also much more likely to be made of up frustrated intellectuals, full of ambitious schemes for remaking the world, who are deeply frustrated that their ideas have not gotten the recognition they deserve. Many are aching for fame or at least notoriety to give significance to their otherwise humdrum lives.
Thus, they kill as much for the act of killing as for any possible consequences, because in truth, as any halfway sane terrorist could discern, there is scant chance of achieving their objectives. Their goals are in fact literally crazy: the anarchists sought to overthrow all organized governments; the Baader Meinhof Gang (which never numbered more than a few hundred adherents) to overthrow the government of West Germany; al-Qaeda to overthrow all of the established governments of the Muslim world and replace them with a new caliphate. Surely not even the most crazed suicide bomber thinks his self-immolation will achieve such lofty objectives; but no matter. At least the suicide bomber has a chance to become well known and to publicize his grievances.
Anders Breivik, the accused assassin of Oslo, fits that profile perfectly. The product of a solidly middle-class or even upper-middle-class household (his father was a diplomat, his mother a nurse), he attended excellent schools in Norway and seemed to have a solid existence planned out for himself. Except that he developed some peculiar ideas. His notions about the threat posed by Islamic immigration to Europe were hardly original and not necessarily wrong (although, as I have argued before, I believe fears of “Eurabia” are vastly exaggerated). But he took them to extremes, as made clear in his 1,500-page manifesto. Not only did he exaggerate the threat, he also vastly exaggerated what he could achieve on his own to combat it. And then he fell into sheer insanity. His plot to murder 76 innocents was the height of evil, but it was carried out with the cleverness and attention to detail one might expect from such an intelligent psychopath.
As often happens with such attacks, the immediate consequences might actually hurt the cause of the perpetrators: Just as the Oklahoma City bombing discredited the survivalist movement and 9/11 (and numerous subsequent atrocities) discredited Islamists, so the Oslo rampage threatens to discredit European critics of Islam. But Breivik probably doesn’t care: he has achieved his immediate goals to get more people to read his manifesto and he has turned himself (like Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and other mass murderers) into a household name. He now even has a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to him. From his warped perspective, this no doubt looks like mission accomplished.