17 April 2012
Anders Breivik: Evil or Idiot?
On trial for murdering 77 people in a terrorist rampage last year, the self-described Norwegian "Knight Templar" Anders Breivik has admitted the killings but refuses guilt for them. In a manifesto read as an opening statement today, Breivik insisted that he had acted from good, not evil motives, above all the desire to preserve Norwegian or European culture from the menace of Muslims and multiculturalism. He established his eligibility for the idiot competition by equating the multiculturalist Norwegian Labor Party, whose youth camp he massacred, with the Hitler Youth. He may have meant to underscore supposedly similar practices of youth "indoctrination," but to equate anything multicultural with anything Nazi is supremely stupid. However, I'm reluctant to dub a mass murderer as the Idiot of the Week, no matter how stupid he is, since his problem seems to go beyond idiocy. His reported disclaimer, as translated and paraphrased in the English-language media, raises the old question of the nature of evil. Some people have argued that, to qualify as truly evil, you have to know that your actions are wrong, immoral, "evil," and do them anyway in a conscious spirit of transgression or spite. Evil, on this view, is all about intentions, not so much about consequences. Breivik apparently believes himself to be on the side of good, as do most people who commit atrocities. It's that belief, in most cases, that entitles people to go beyond the usual moral constraints, a noble end justifying awful means. A culture that condemns murder but condones war often finds itself splitting hairs when trying to label something Evil, while a truly moral culture might be expected to ignore ends when considering whether means are wrong. Whether Breivik is evil or not is not under consideration in the Norwegian court. Whether it's useful to label his crimes and his beliefs as Evil is subject to debate. I've dismissed the word in the past, believing it, when employed by certain American politicians, no more than an excuse for refusing to negotiate with obnoxious or otherwise difficult antagonists. But if you believe that there are some beliefs or interests in the world with which it is impossible or improper to negotiate, and you have respectable reasons for thinking so, "evil" might make your point pretty well.