Anders Breivik and Khaleid Sheikh Mohammed
The Atlantic‘s Max Fisher reflects on “What America Can Learn From Norway’s Anders Breivik Trial.”
The terrorism of Anders Behring Breivik is so horrific it can be difficult to even describe. Last July, he detonated a car bomb in Oslo, killing eight, before ambushing a left-wing political youth retreat, where he executed 69 people, mostly teenagers. Breivik, a self-styled “militant” who was ruled not insane by state-appointed experts, represents northern Europe’s far-right ethnic nationalism in its most extreme form. Both Breivik and his violent, dangerous ideology have an enormous soapbox with his trial in Oslo this week, from which international media organizations are beaming his words and ideas across the globe.
It’s exactly what the U.S. worried would happen if it tried Khaleid Sheikh Mohammed, the September 11 mastermind, in a New York city courtroom as originally intended. It’s the very scenario we avoided by deciding instead to try him in a military trial at the Guantanamo Bay military detention facility.
So, disaster averted, right? KSM never got his big platform to preach al-Qaeda’s ideology, never spread his toxic ideas around the world abetted by an over-eager media, never became a glowing New York-based beacon for the world’s would-be terrorists. Well, judging by the Breivik trial, that’s probably not really what would have happened, and there’s good reason to think it might have actually damaged KSM’s ideological message, rather than furthering it.
Breivik appears to be deliberately using the trial and its media coverage, which he is clearly enjoying, as a platform to glorify his awful crime and the beliefs behind it. “These acts are based on goodness, not evil,” he said. “I would have done it again, because offenses against my people … are many times as bad.” The family members of survivors were visibly pained as he explained that it was “critically important” for the world to hear his explanation, which they will. He called his attack “the most spectacular sophisticated political act in Europe since the Second World War.” It’s not hard to imagine Khelid Sheikh Mohammed saying something similar about September 11. In his manifesto before his attacks, Breivik wrote a sort of primer for the other militants he was hoping to inspire. “Your trial offers you a stage to the world,” he noted.
And yet, rather than sparking a far-right-extremist renaissance, or inspiring a new generation of Breivik acolytes across northern Europe, his public rantings appear to be having the opposite effect. European white nationalist movements, of which Breivik represents an extreme fringe, have been on the rise of years, gaining political power and, whether deliberately or not, inspiring violence. But the popular backlash against Breivik has put them on the defensive. Far-right such as the English Defence League, with which Breivik had some indirect contact, are suffering as Breivik reveals their disturbing ideological overlaps. When far-right parties held a mass rally in Denmark earlier this month, opposing protesters actually outnumbered them.
Al-Qaeda’s ideology, like Breivik’s, has been called an extreme fringe of an extreme fringe. In this case, al-Qaeda and KSM are often described as part of an offshoot of colonial-era radical Islamism, a violent reaction to colonialism and post-colonial Middle Eastern dictators. KSM and Osama bin Laden’s violence ended up alienating Muslims not just from al-Qaeda but from radical Islamist movements more broadly. Breivik’s violence seems to have alienated immigrant-weary white Europeans — his intended audience — from the far-right movements of which he was a fringe loner. His trial is exacerbating that trend; wouldn’t KSM’s trial have done the same?
I suppose there’s an argument that allowing these people to rant bolsters their cause even while harming their standing with the larger public. Perhaps the sort of fringe extremists which al Qaeda and nationalist hate groups seek to attract will find the screeds compelling even while the rest of us are strengthened in our disdain. But that strikes me as a risk worth taking.
Moreover, the trial itself can undercut their message:
Breivik is also showing off Norway’s criminal justice system, and its liberal democratic architecture, to the world. University of Oslo professor Thomas Mathiesen told the Associated Press that the Norwegian system isn’t about “revenge, but sober, dignified treatment” of even the worst criminals. “It is deeply ingrained in Norwegian tradition and fundamental values,” he said of allowing Breivik’s rants. “If it lasts all the way through the 10 weeks of this trial, and I think it will, we have an important message to the world.” The U.S. criminal justice system, which has similar protections for defendants and their dignity, never got a chance to show itself off in trying Khaleid Sheikh Mohammed before a curious world.
In the case of al Qaeda in particular, a sober, fair trial in an American court for a Muslim accused of heinous crimes would send a powerful message that the United States really believes in the “rule of law” that it preaches abroad and is in fact not engaged in a war against Islam. I’m sure that the most extreme Islamists will reject any evidence contrary to their worldview; but it’s quite possible that those on the margins will be swayed.