The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a right-wing terrorist anticipated the ultranationalist wave

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The terrorist is expressionless as he arrives at a camp full of trusting and cheerful teenagers. Dressed as a police officer and bearing an arsenal of firearms, he proceeds to slaughter dozens. Some victims, cowering in fear, are tricked by his instructions and get executed lying face down. Others get shot in the back as they flee for safety. The terrorist himself meekly surrenders to the security forces who eventually corner him, receiving the clemency he refused to give others.

The terrorist in question is Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out the bloodiest massacre in modern Norwegian history on July 22, 2011. Breivik detonated a car bomb in a government complex in Oslo and then proceeded to the island of Utoya, where members of the youth wing of Norway’s center-left Labour Party had gathered for a retreat. His rampage led to 77 deaths.

The massacre is the subject of a film by acclaimed British director Paul Greengrass that was released last week. “22 July” offers an unflinching account of the attacks and then delves into what followed — a court case that tested Norway’s legal system and its patience, as an unrepentant hate-filled murderer was allowed to take the stand and revel in his crimes.

Breivik’s actions were seen as those of a deranged, far-right lone wolf. A manifesto that he circulated before embarking on the killing spree railed against immigration, multiculturalism and the supposed Marxism of the political establishment, quoting various members of the fringe far-right in Europe and the United States. He styled himself as a crusading warrior of the Knights Templar and boasted of a network of comrades ready to take up arms alongside him — though investigators never found much evidence of any such fellow travelers.

But seven years later, Breivik no longer seems so isolated. Across Scandinavia, Europe and even the United States, far-right, anti-immigrant politics are ascendant. Speaking to Today’s WorldView, Greengrass said Breivik’s “intellectual worldview has migrated” closer to the political center.

“We can test the extent we should be disturbed by the extent to which you can see Breivik’s manifesto come into the mainstream,” Greengrass said in an interview last week while visiting Washington. With President Trump and others railing against “globalists,” immigrants and liberals, the suggestion is that we should be very disturbed, indeed.

Greengrass has made a veritable canon of films that dwell on political violence and terrorism, from Irish sectarianism to Somali piracy. He links “22 July” to his 2006 movie “United 93,” which recounts the events aboard a passenger jet seized by al-Qaeda hijackers on 9/11. Passengers fought back against the terrorists who had taken over the plane, which ultimately crashed in a wooded clearing in Pennsylvania.

Both the Islamist militants and Breivik were engaged in “a revolt against globalization,” said Greengrass. While Breivik hardly represents all far-right populists, the filmmaker argued there is a segment of the movement that is “starting to use language and espouse beliefs that are no longer compatible with democratic norms.” Breivik’s manifesto — though, thankfully, not yet his actions — offer a window into the real peril facing liberal democracy.

“We are in the early stages of an ideological struggle for an open or closed world,” Greengrass said.

At an event marking the film’s release in Washington, Greengrass spoke alongside a number of former government officials and experts in right-wing radicalization. They argued the film ought to make the Trump administration’s moves to stoke ultranationalist politics in America — as well as cut funding from federal programs aimed at tackling far-right domestic terrorism — all the more alarming.

Gen. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director in the George W. Bush administration, warned that the “line of discourse has shifted" in the United States in worrying fashion. He said while European countries may be able to reach back to a more ethnocentric past, the United States is built on pluralism.

“If we no longer embrace the concepts” upon which the United States was founded “and turn instead to the politics of blood and soil, then the impact may be far greater and more destructive," Hayden said.

In the United States and Europe, such entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. Voters — irked by feelings of cultural resentment and deepening social inequity — have opted for parties on the extremes and aren’t bothered by the scolding of establishment voices. Greengrass describes what he deems the “populist insurgency” raging in the West “like seeing a storm blow over buildings.”

The question is whether the existing structures can withstand the assault. Centrist politicians are being chastened or defeated in elections across the continent. Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister during Breivik’s massacre and a heroic figure in “22 July,” was drummed out of power in 2013. He’s now the secretary general of NATO, the military alliance widely disliked by the West’s populists.

The dramatic tension in Greengrass’s film hinges on Norway’s ability to confront Breivik’s deeds and beliefs. “They showed great courage and wisdom to take the hard road and uphold the rule of law,” said Greengrass.

We see the powerful moment when youthful survivors of Breivik’s attack on Utoya speak before him in the courtroom. “What they did was come into that court and confront him — some morally, some intellectually, some emotionally — and collectively they defeated him,” said Greengrass. Breivik’s life is now forever consigned to the “confined space” of prison.

“What you see in the trial is two radically different worldviews,” said Greengrass. He clings to hope that the beliefs of Breivik’s victims “are going to emerge stronger.”

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