< Reading an Alleged Killer's Manifesto

Transcript

Friday, July 29, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ninety minutes before accused mass murder Anders Breivik began his killing spree in Norway on July 22nd, he emailed his intentions to more than a thousand people with a 1500-page manifesto attached.

He's hardly the first accused murderer to publicly declare and justify his intent. And it's clear why. Such missives are irresistible to journalists looking for any explanation.

And yet, when they're as lengthy as Breivik's or the Unabomber's, they're often not fully read. This is Bill O'Reilly on Monday:

BILL O'REILLY:

Now, on Sunday The New York Times headline has, Horrors Emerged, Norway Charges Christian Extremists. A number of other news organizations like The L.A. Times and Reuters also played up the Christian angle.

But Breivik is not a Christian. That's impossible. No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jeff Sharlet is a Dartmouth professor who frequently writes about religion and is one of what is presumably a very small number of people who took the weekend to read 1500 pages of Breivik's thoughts. Sharlet says that he was struck by just how American Breivik's work is and also by how much it's been mischaracterized. For instance there's that issue of Breivik's Christianity.

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

At one point he says I'm not particularly religious. And so, people who are doing sort of find and search in this massive document find that and say, oh good, he's not Christian. And then they don't read the pages and pages and pages where he sort of slowly talks about his evolution. And by the end of the manifesto he is really quoting scripture a lot more and talking about his ideal of how a Christian state should be run.

It becomes more and more invested in faith, first as a kind of a weaponized thing, that faith is going to prepare him to what He calls “Bible battle verses,” but then goes deeper and deeper. And to put it in kind of new-agey terms, he sees this as, as a faith journey.

This is a 1500-page story of the development of the mind of a killer, and he's not the same person at the end of the story that he is at the beginning.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You've compared it to that piece of literature. Specifically, you've compared it to Moby Dick.

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

Moby Dick, of course, starts with this long passage of quotations from other writers about the whale. There's a little bit of a similarity here. The whale for Breivik is Islam, which he sees as vast and menacing and dangerous and beyond comprehension, yet he must keep trying.

So now he'll turn to Robert Spencer, a prominent anti-Islamic writer. And now he'll turn to the poet Ted Hughes who [LAUGHS] never — never wrote a thing against Islam, as far as I know. And now he's going to turn to Mark Twain and now he's going to turn to Rich Lowry, a prominent conservative writer for The National Review, drawing in all these sources into this sort of — the whirlpool of this manifesto in which some of these voices get drowned and become part of his.

Now, we're talking about poetry, now he's talking about the Knights of Templar. And now he's talking about investment strategies to finance your project, or here are some really good exercises to prepare you, or it's really important for a Christian warrior to be prepared, and this is a thankless task.

So you have to do nice things for yourself. Go for a meditative walk. He says, I like smoothies. It's really good before you're about to undertake a mission to have, like, a nice smoothie, listen to some nice music. Treat yourself right.

You can tell the writer is aware of the comic element of that. And, again, that gets it into the sort of literary qualities of creating a character. And he discusses that. He talks about marketing himself. At one point he says, I'm not only a one-man army, I'm a one-man marketing agency.

He says, you have to have professional photographs of yourself taken. You should try and be good-looking, if you can. But it doesn't matter. You have to give people an identity, and that will give your manifesto more power. He expects the manifesto to outlast him. Unfortunately, I think he's probably right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So let's talk about the ways in which, you argue, both his style is American and his content.

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

He talks about his favorite destination. And he decides number one is Budapest. But it seems kind of dutiful. What he really wants to talk about is Vegas, all the Red Bulls and vodkas he drank. And then he quotes other European conservative writers talking about how they have to take these sort of refresher trips to America, partly because America's more conservative and they also see it as having maintained its Christian identity.

Again and again and again, when he wants to explain his story, he turns to America. What's the justification for Norway fighting back against the Muslim horde? The U.S. Declaration of Independence.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Did you undertake this because you felt like Breivik was being improperly characterized?

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

Yeah, I guess a little bit. I mean, I was sort of surprised by, you know, sort of this question, is he religious or not. And there is sort of a very limited idea that being religious means you go to church on Sundays and that you are pious and that your religion is expressed emotionally.

That was frustrating to me. And there was also he must be a mad man. And he may well be. I'm not a psychologist. But he also did have political ideas. It comes out of a political world. He takes this political logic further than others. And those others vigorously condemn that step that he took.

But, in the same way as the Unabomber, it's silly to say that the Unabomber had nothing to do with radical environmentalism. He did something that those activists would never, ever do, but he came out of that set of ideas.

And there seems to be in the press always a sort of desire to — is he — he is a madman or is he — and if he's not a madman, then he must be part of a political organization.

Well, maybe it's sort of somewhere in between there. Are these American conservatives to blame? No. Well, if they're not to blame, then how are they in any way relevant? There's that great spectrum of ideas and the way ideas interact in between those two poles.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

JD Salinger did not cause Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon. On the other hand, the character in Catcher in the Rye begins with a profound cynicism about humanity, a kind of loathing of the hypocrisy of the adults that he knows. Do you know where I'm going with this?

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

We're going back to be the old conservative saying that ideas have consequences. And that's true. But it's always important to remember Breivik pulled the trigger; these people didn't.

There's the spectrum of sources. I feel very confident in saying Mark Twain bears no [LAUGHS] responsibility for what Breivik did, although Thomas Jefferson, who I adore and revere, that unfortunate quote about watering the tree of liberty with blood has been used time and time again to justify political violence.

And it's used in this and Breivik says, when you're on trial make sure that you remind you judge, whatever country you're in, that Thomas Jefferson is our guy.

And does that mean Thomas Jefferson shouldn't have said that ? No. But it does mean there is that relationship. And, and again, you get someone like Robert Spencer is who presenting this reading of Islam as saying, Islam is dedicated to your destruction.

The anti-Islamic movement, it's I think in this sort of interesting moment right now, where it has amped up its fear of the Muslim threat, from their perspective, to so great that it's at this boiling point.

Well, what do you do about it? You say that the cause is lost, you say that Europe has fallen. What do you do about it?

And then you say but, of course, we believe in non-violence. And it reminds me of a Belgian politician, I believe, speaking to the BBC the other day, and he gets — from a right wing party and horrified there's this violence. The BBC reporter says, well then why do you distribute knives to your supporters. They're non-violent knifes.

Maybe that's the paradox that I think best explains the moment and the nature of that relationship. There's a lot of non-violent knives going around out there right now. And you do you have to ask yourself, what happens when someone decides the knife can actually be used?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jeff, thank you very much.

PROFESSOR JEFF SHARLET:

Thanks. Good to be with you again.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jeff Sharlet is author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between