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The bombings in Norway last July were shocking. Not just for Norway, a haven of relative peace since the second world war, a beautiful, wealthy, healthy and sparsely populated corner of the world that you don’t hear that much about, except perhaps when the Nobel Peace Prize is given out. From a population a little more than 4 million people, Norway has contributed a small quantity of soldiers to UN forces in recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Libya. When the first pictures came from a devastated Oslo, which suddenly looked more like Beirut at the height of the conflicts there, the analysts were quick to speculate about Al Quada and Norwegian involvement in Libya and to Afghanistan. When the first reports came of a single blond Norwegian wielding a gun, the speculative analysis turned its attention to possible local converts to Islam.
Anders Breivik was no such thing; he would certainly think that he was the very opposite of a convert to Islam. With a more than shocking ability to cause destruction for what is known to be a one person operation, the central focus for his hatred was indeed Islam. Having been raised in one of the most liberal communities on earth, his actions represents what is worst in humanity, and what I suspect we all share with him to some degree, whatever religion, race, creed or other differences there are between us; a fear that can turn into hatred of that which is ‘other’ than ourselves, a wish for that which does not reflect our perceived identity, personal and group mythology to cease to be.
A person such as Anders Breivik and an act such as his represent something which does exist not just in Norway, but everywhere. The sentiments that he acted upon exist even in quite moderate people, who would rarely speak an impolite word, let alone commit a violent act against another person. Andres Breivik could act as a mirror in which we see the darkest corners of our own minds; the stores where we hold resentment, rejection, scapegoating, the desire to destroy those we think will undermine us and our personal and collective sense of identity. He does not exist in a vacuum. He exists as a product of a society where I believe many share his fears, though they would abhor his actions. While that society rejects him, horrified at what he has done, he is also a mirror to what is hidden in the society, what is unacknowledged by a liberal government and spoken mostly in private corners. He speaks loud, and shockingly violently, of the unacknowledged shadow.
As Buddhists we may examine ourselves for the occasionally violent and/or prejudicial thought and emotion we may erupt in. We believe that thoughts and intentions, as well as words and actions, have consequences in the real world, not least for ourselves. Human societies throughout time have employed scapegoating of those who are seen to fall outside their conscious, explicit norms. Where do all the rage of those who can stop themselves taking it further go? Does it just dissipate? Or does it find expression in the world? Could it be that it expresses itself through ‘fuses’ such as Anders Breivik? Who for reasons of lack of self-containment, or, as it appears in this case, an idealistic disconnected super hero ideology, acts it out. What I am reflecting on is, would people like Andres Breivik exist in a truly open society where everything could be openly aired, in a society where each individual was deeply conscious, open and compassionate, ready to meet the other?
Andres Breivik has perhaps more in common with the Taliban than he has with most Norwegians or Europeans. His driving force appears as theirs; overstepping every taboo in an attempt to ‘preserve’ a way of life that he feel is threatened, and he identifies with on an almost mythological level.
In the Taliban’s case it is more understandable. They form part of people who has known nothing but violence and invasion as long as most living Afghans can remember. What they perceive as self-defence might have become an almost automatic response to the constant onslaught. In Andrers Breivik’s case, it is more baffling.
Anders Breivik and the Taliban both represent our human (over)attachment to personal and group identity which often cause the most wanton acts of destruction, both on personal and national levels; identity and ownership, Me and Mine. Equally it’s about Not Me and Not Mine, it is about duality. The edifice of identity is constantly served by greed and hatred, greed for that which augments and preserves identity, hatred for that which threatens it. Greed for wealth and power serves the preservation of power around individuals, families and nation groups and their way of life. Hatred and violence serve to dispel real or imagined threats.
Throughout history, religious belief has been so tightly woven with national identity, power and a way of life, that rather than being a force for good amongst people which its founders may have intended, it has become a stick to beat non-conformist with, and a source for yielding power. In Western Europe, the cat of Christianity has largely had its claws clipped in modern times, to the benefit both of itself and the world around it. This was not the case for Christianity in the past, and is still not the case for Islam in many, if not most predominantly Islamic countries. These days it would be a very big ask from a European these day to go to arms to protect Christianity (and a contradiction in terms), but in the past, nation and religion, personal, tribe and national identity was one.
Andres Breivik, like the Taliban, is willing to kill his own countrymen in what he sees as the interest of the preservation of a national identity, a way of life. Dying and killing for an abstract idea is apparently something which separates us humans from other animals. It is very difficult for a European to see why they Taliban should want to preserve their way of life as we might see it, poverty stricken, sexist, an undeveloped and brutal society where the rule of law has little effect. As it is perhaps difficult for the Taliban to see why Anders Breivik should want to preserve his way of life; morally degenerate, greedy, respecting nothing and no one, lacking in spirituality and community cohesion, as they might see it.
Acts of war and terrorism both in recent times and the past have been motivated by this sense of group identity, of preservation or expansion to secure its survival. The New York and London bombings were no doubt enacted by individuals who felt that their way of life was being overrun and annihilated by what they saw as an inferior (and perhaps evil) culture, albeit a stronger military and economic force. Their way of life was so important to the perpetrators that to preserve it they would give their lives, and take the lives of many others. I assume this was because their minds and emotions were so conditioned by certain values, behaviours, beliefs and a lifestyle that they identified totally with it and its religious and cultural expressions, even more than they did with their own bodies.
It seems to be shocking us when one or a few individuals cause death and destruction on such a relatively large scale, and we tend to ask a shared why, what sort of insanity is this, for an ‘ordinary’ person to do such a thing? But Anders Breivik, having until recently been deemed ‘insane’, is perhaps no more or less divorced from reality than our political leaders, who we ‘allow’ to hold prominent positions amongst ourselves. He has ideals about group preservation and culture that he is prepared to make great sacrifices for, of self and others. Too often throughout history the most powerful play on ‘naïve’ popular sentiments such as his have been to cause much more annihilation serving what is really the economic interests of the few ( usually including arms manufacturers). Andres Breivik appears to have killed a lot of innocent people because he didn’t agree with the policies of a government. He and his like had failed to get the governing powers to listen to their views or act upon them.
Some years ago, a couple of Western leaders and the interests they represented didn’t agree with the government of Iraq and couldn’t get Iraq’s leader to listen and act according to Western wishes and values. So two of’ the West’s’ most powerful leaders, backed by members of their legislative bodies, unilaterally decided to go into Iraq and kill a lot of innocent people. Their alliance built on shared identity was powerful enough to underpin this joint enterprise. How many people has died as a result of this decision by now? Around 300,000? Why is it that we can feel so much more shocked, and so much more decisively punitive when a ‘small’ person copies these strategies?
The extension of our self-identity to include a group or groups we feel we belong to is at least as strong in religious context as in nationalism, political views, the tribalism of football or the strong ego extension of family or partnerships. In Buddhist Psychology we aim to extend ourselves into what is ‘other’, but not in the way we do in the context of consuming a whole group into our fortified self-identity. This less wholesome ‘growth’ can be spotted in the ‘fortress self’ (Caroline Brazier) we build around our inflated selves, and the strength of our reactions when defending it against what is deemed ‘other’.
In reality we, like the Michelin Man, have layers of such selves, our body, our family, our team, our country, our religion. Sometimes they overlap. If our family share our religion, support the same football team and of course belong to the same national identity, identities reinforce each other. Where they oppose each other, we might find a looser and more ‘open’ structure. How they differ however from encountering the ‘other’ of Buddhist Psychology, is in the discrimination and the force of duality inherent in our ‘larger self-building’ perception and reactions, in the strength of our aversion to the ‘other’. True embracing, or at least meeting, the ‘other ‘is recognised by the softening of this aversion and the holding of our ‘own’ less tightly.
Entering a religious community, both to a main category of religion and to one of its subgroups, we can both find ourselves opening and extending in a more wholesome way, as well as be busy building ‘the fortress self’ in new ways. We can become more emotionally open and honest to others, embrace humility and reduce our wilfulness. But we may also become defensive about our new community. Thinking it’s wonderful and that we have found THE RIGHT PATH, we can become more than a little derisory about those who are clearly not (in our opinion) on THE RIGHT PATH. Those poor people! Perhaps we think, or say, this a little condescendingly. Those poor deluded people; they lack our new found understanding. But we are ready and willing to help them!
Perhaps we start doing things on behalf of our community that we would definitely be ashamed of doing on behalf of our small previous self, like leaning on people a little to donate money to our new bigger self. It becomes obvious that we are a little wayward when we the teachings start fading a little within our minds and we spend most of our energy on empire building; gathering money and buildings and inaugurating new humans into our fold. When it really unsettles us that people choose to leave THE RIGHT PATH. After all, or self-fortification depends on numbers that prop up our sense of self-evident truth. If it is only I that hold my world view, then I could be labelled ‘insane’, a very disturbing and unfortified place to be, and the very opposite to on THE RIGHT PATH, i.e. a little ahead of the crowd. Insanity is the label for having been assigned to hinterland of a world occupied by only one, as the ultimate punishment is disconnection from group or bigger self. The label of insanity is not very fortifying. Praise is fortifying, blame is annihilation. A broadly held diagnosis of insanity by others isolates and destroys the psychological sense of self like a bullet through the heart destroys the body, and totalitarian governments have found it a useful label for those who disagrees with them. Anders Breivik is finding himself to be the mirror we don’t want to look in, so we cast it aside. He is very definitely no longer a part of the majority group identity, and to label him insane would give a society permission not to reflect upon how it produced him. It could simply say to itself that his internal processes had suffered some inexplicable malfunction in total disconnect from the human networks he had always been a part of.
If we happen to be religious devotees, brutal criticism of our religion is a good reality check. Are we offended? Do we feel angry? Does it make us feel vulnerable and wanting to run and hide in the sacred fold? Don’t test it on the Taliban. The Buddha advised his disciples that if someone criticized him, they should enquire; is the criticism true? If not, they could say, calmly, it is not. If it was true, they could say, calmly, it is true. He must have been very much part of his unenlightened disciples identity, their beloved master. I don’t know how those who knew him in person reacted, but many of his more recent disciples has got offended by criticism of the Buddha. He might be a part of our larger self-identity, a part that we somehow feel justified in being defensive about, even aggressively protect, the ideal that is somehow worth more than our smaller selves, perhaps more than our lives. The religious ideal might the part of us that is immortal, that defies death.
As long as we have an enemy, as long as there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’, as long as we are raking together leaves of wealth and believers to build an edifice of those who sign up to our ‘camp’ rather than purely to benefit individuals, we have a little Andres Breivik in us. The ‘other’ is then either for us or against us, is either one of us, or a threat to us. The ‘other’ is either benefitting us or diminishing us. However gross and violent or subtle those sentiments are, they are still barricades separating us from the way things really are. And yet, those attachments to smaller and greater identities are so deep in us, and so very painful to relinquish.
I feel deeply for those devastated parents, relatives and friends of the dead in Norway, the country of my birth, which I still can’t help but identify with. Yes, I am still proud (in a kind of personal sense, although I had nothing to do with it) of some things that society has achieved, women gaining the vote in 1886, the last peacetime execution being in 1915, a gay member of parliament being able to ‘come out’ in 1947. That little pilot project of liberalism in the corner of the world that goes under the name of Norway.
I am also absolutely sure that the parents, friends and relatives of those 300,000 in Iraq have been and are no less devastated than those bereaved Norwegians are. Unlike Andres Breivik, Tony Blair and George Bush are not in solitary confinement as we speak. I believe they and those who supported them are probably travelling the world doing lecture tours or in other ways continuing to accumulate wealth and grandeur to fortify their identity, while the rest of us shall continue to busy ourselves punish the smaller ‘fuses’ that blow in our midst, those that expresses our joint shadow of pushing away that which is ‘other.’ Because, in our confused frustration, we can at least get our hands on Anders Breivik, yes we can.
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