“The men the European public admires most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.” So begins Anders Behring Brevik's manifesto, the words that explain his decision to set out to slaughter the women and men whose future he believed he was fighting for. No one knows precisely what he had on his mind this weekend past, when he set out with an explosive device and an assault weapon to impress upon the world the truth as he saw it — an act of terrorism that, in per capita terms, ranks high in the list of horrors and atrocities of our age. It is tempting to dismiss Brevik's acts as the work of a deranged man, which in weeks and months to come, psychiatrists may well determine him to be. But while Brevik's violence may have been psychopathic, it was also political. In his rambling manifesto, 2083: a European Declaration of Independence, he exhorts those who might follow in his footsteps to remember that their arrest will give the movement a “living martyr”; each “trial offers you a stage to the world.” Every act of terrorism — as opposed to ordinary crime, or demented rage — is, in this sense, an act of political theatre, a performance intended to reach out to an audience.
What was the message this mass killer intended to send out? Brevik's claims that multiculturalism had rendered Europe effeminate; his hostility to the egalitarian premises of the democratic movements that have shaped Europe since the French revolution of 1789; his invective at Muslim migrants whom he casts as an existential threat — these are well-established motifs of the neoconservative politics that emerged resurgent in Europe after 1978. Brevik's words and ideas are thus rhetorical amplifications of ideas that have become mainstream. His apocalyptic act of violence reflected his loss of faith in organised politics to deliver on its own promises. For India, there are serious lessons. It is not that there is a simple causal connection between jihadi terrorism and the overground Islamist movement; or between Hindutva violence and the mainstream politics of Hindu nationalism; or between Khalistanis and Sikh neo-fundamentalism. Yet each of these competing religious neo-conservatisms built a climate of hate that has spawned agents of horrific violence. Indian political parties, across the spectrum, are quick to attack terrorist violence — but only a few have the integrity and the courage to condemn the systems of thought and language that underpin it. The tragedy in Norway reminds us that words can kill just as surely as bombs and assault rifles. That is good reason to act hard and resourcefully against hate speech in our national political life.