In July, Norway was subject to a brutal domestic terrorism attack; a man named Anders Brevik set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and gunned down scores of people at a youth camp. It was vile, brutal, and devastating for the Norwegian people. As inevitably happens whenever mass killings of this nature appear in the news, members of the general public, as well as the media, immediately began attributing this violence to mental illness. Brevik was crazy, psycho, insane, a lunatic. Some media outlets attempted some responsibility at the start but quickly gave in to the tide of rhetoric, which only increased when Brevik’s attorney began laying the groundwork for an insanity plea, arguing that his client was mentally ill.
Discussions about violence and mental illness are troubling from a number of perspectives; the insistence on blaming any kind of mass violence on mental illness is recurrent, and indicates that people are eager to distance themselves from acts of vile brutality. If someone ‘crazy’ has done it, this means that people do not need to engage with it. They can say that it was clearly a ‘lone madman,’ and has nothing to do with the society and culture around them. Society as a whole has no culpability, because it is not responsible for the acts of crazy people.
Yet, these actions, Brevik’s, Laughner’s, so many others, are the direct consequence of social structures that remain unexamined in the media in the wake of such cases. Members of the public can turn their faces the other way after acknowledging the tragedy, because there’s no accounting for mentally ill people. Setting aside the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence, that a very small percentage of people with severe mental illness engage in violence, this also elides what was actually going on here.
Brevik did not operate in isolation. Flavia Dzodan pointed out in the wake of his attacks that he was actually part of a much larger, sinister, and more frightening phenomenon. Far-right groups in Europe include scores of people like Brevik, who believe that immigrants are a ‘stain’ that needs to be eradicated, who threaten acts of violence not just against immigrants, but liberal activists and politicians. Brevik didn’t occur in a vacuum. He was a member of groups that espouse racist ideals, openly hold events like marches calling for the eradication of immigrants.
This is something that European governments have been warned about, have paid attention to, and it’s something happening in the US as well, where investigative priorities place domestic terrorism low. Groups like those Brevik belonged to thrive in the US, not just Europe, and they are extremely dangerous. They are breeding a new generation of people like Brevik, people who believe that it is acceptable to use acts of violence to expulse those they do not like. They are in the media, they are holding marches, they are operating openly, and they feed on hateful propaganda that pops up throughout the mainstream, not just the fringe. Every time news stations report on tea party rallies, they’re creating a safe haven for these groups, making their rhetoric more palatable, more acceptable.
This is not mental illness. This is racism. This is hate. This is imperialist violence. When people neatly dismiss hateful acts as ‘mental illness’ they do a disservice not just to mentally ill people, but to their own society. Because this is something that people need to be engaging with. People need to be talking about this. Nations and their residents need to address domestic terrorism because Brevik did not work alone, and more people like him are out there, waiting in the wings. They take note of the sociopolitical climate. They note that people write off their actions as mental illness rather than seeing them as a warning sign and an urgent indicator.
Organisations that promote hate speech can neatly disavow themselves of their own members in this climate. They can claim they aren’t responsible for what crazy people do, for how mentally ill people might interpret or read their rhetoric. The planners, the instigators, can set up people like Brevik for a fall, and rest secure that their organisations will not become targets of further scrutiny and investigation. After all, they couldn’t help the fact that crazy people read their materials, attended their rallies, talked with members. They can’t be expected to police the behaviour of every single person they interact with and touch with their rhetoric.
What people learn from events like this is that violent acts of hate, of racism, perpetrated against them will be dismissed as mental illness, and nothing that society is responsible for, or can do anything about. What they learn is that they are unsafe, and that reporting violence is futile because it will not be recognised as a social problem. What they learn is that, even in nations that claim to be concerned about discrimination and multiculturalism, those in power have no interest in actually protecting people from violence.
The United States is facing a growing tide of anti-immigrant sentiment that is also getting extremely aggressive and very violent. Fears for the safety of immigrants are not ungrounded, right now. Fears for the safety of those who work with immigrants, who promote more liberal immigration policy, are also not ungrounded. When the message sent to hate groups is that their rhetoric is welcome in the mass media and their representatives will be written off as ‘crazy’ when they engage in acts of violence, it fans the flames. It keeps these organisations safe. It ensures that they can continue to engage in escalating acts of violence and domestic terrorism.
This is why it is dangerous to attribute acts of violence like this to mental illness. No matter what people think about mental illness, this violence is the result of systemic racism and hate, and it is this that people need to engage with. Rather than calling for locking up the perpetrators and throwing away the key, people should be demanding accountability from the government. Should be asking why domestic terrorism is not investigated. Should be asking why hate groups are allowed to incite acts of violence with their rhetoric, and get away with it.