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Empathy in Norway


Anders Breivik manifestoWhen news of the bomb blast in Oslo and the killings on Utoya island first came, it was suspected that this was the work of Muslim terrorists. Soon after it emerged that Anders Breivik in fact resented Islamic immigrants and was a self-confessed Christian. My instinctive response was one of relief. But why should it have mattered who had done these terrible things?

What matters most in this carnage, of course, is the terrible loss and pain of so many people. Around 70 people died, most of them school students or young adults. Many more were injured. Countless families have entered a world of pain and of incomprehension at the loss of children, brothers and sisters. Lives and communities will be scarred, some irreparably.

If this is what matters, the most decent initial response is not to analyse the events or to seek to assign blame. It is to keep in our hearts and minds those who have so suffered. The prayer services held throughout Norway offered many Norwegians words and silences to express bewilderment and compassion for those who had lost so much. Others expressed their solidarity in other ways.

The attempt to understand the massacre comes later. But understanding can reach only so far. It is impossible to explain adequately how one human being can make plans to kill and maim others, and can coldly carry the project through.

If we reflect on the killer's attitudes, personal history, social context and reading or viewing habits, we may receive some illumination. But many others with a similar background have never acted violently. In all human decisions there is ultimately an irreducible and mysterious spark.

In Breivik, that spark fell on combustible material. Everything suggests he had imbibed ideas that showed no respect for empathy with people as unique individuals. They were seen only as members of particular national, religious or political groups who were to be loved or hated accordingly.

Ultimately groups like Norwegians, Muslims, Marxists and the Norwegian Labour Party were undifferentiated abstractions, endowed with the qualities of the worst members of the group. So the lives of real people, including children, were expendable in the war against these abstractions.

This attitude to people contrasts deeply with the empathy with which people went out to the victims. They responded to the victims as persons with a centre of value which matter more than the differences of religion, race or political persuasions.

The contrast between these attitudes suggests that in order to honour the victims, it is important not to allow an abstract discussion of social groups to dominate the response to the massacre.

Perhaps this explains the relief when the killer proved not to be Muslim. In itself, the identity of the killer did not matter. But given the common prejudice against Muslims, a terrorist act committed by Muslims would have focused public anger and outrage against Muslims. Their value would be seen to be defined by the religious allegiance, and compromised by the actions of criminals who shared it.

The lack of respect for persons in the response would then mirror the lack of respect that was a central element in the killings.

Now that Breivik has been shown to be influenced by Christianity, by xenophobic ideas of race and by suspicion of Marxist ideas, it would be equally wrong to blame all opponents of migration, all Christians and all right wing theorists for the killings. Their ideas may be wrong, but ideas and the groups that held them did not do the killing. A man did.

But it remains true that the tinder through which murderous sparks can quickly run is the habit of seeing people as ciphers of religious, racial or political abstractions, and so to accord respect or disrespect on that basis and not on the basis of their simple humanity. That habit is fed by polemical and sneering rhetoric in public conversation, and by portraying people as monsters.

Undoubtedly many changes in Norwegian society will be canvassed as a result of this event. Limiting access to weapons and explosives, scrutiny of right wing groups, and a stronger security presence will be discussed.

But the most beneficial change there, as in Australia and many other Western societies, might be to encourage and to expect restraint in public conversation. It would be a great thing if the empathy and respect given to the victims of this terrorist were reflected in the way in which citizens negotiated their differences, and in the ways in which the media spoke of human beings. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Norway, Oslo, Utoya, Anders Breivik, shooting, massacre, bombing, Islam, Marxism



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Existing comments

"It is impossible to explain adequately how one human being can make plans to kill and maim others, and can coldly carry the project through."

Ah, memory...how quickly the images fade....

Remember Hitler, Stalin, Pot Pot...the military bastards in the Balkans..and those wretches in today's world such as in Libya, North Korea, Burma, the Middle East, Africa.....the planning, the killing and the maiming is ongoing.

More centrally,"it's impossible to explain adequately" why humanity (the world at large) stands idly by...such as it is in regard to the Horn of Africa where the killer there also has a familiar name....famine!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 27 July 2011  

I heard a Norwegian psychologist interviewed on BBC say that his view is that Breivik has narcissistic personality disorder. Like psychopaths such people have a tremendous sense of self importance. Just think of themselves all the way.

Psychopaths usually have a long history of cruelty to animals and other human beings - it is not clear that this is the case so it falls more within the narcissistic personality disorder description. In any case he was no Christian :


Skye | 27 July 2011  

Another form of the 'apologist' comemntary, excusing the manifest failures of religions to take responsibility for what is done under the banner of various gods.

Why is it so difficult to understand why and how this rightwing Christian behaved as he did, when he has openly and clearly drawn on the words and actions of various leaders from around the world who have expressed such obnoxious, such objectionable and such violent thoughts?

Why is it any harder to understand him than it is to understand the violence dished out to women and children by decades of ignorant, brutal and uncaring Roman Catholic (and they are not alone by any means) church leaders?

After all, one has only to read about Jim Wallace's constant bragging about his work training SAS killers to see the difficulty there is when God has determined that 'thou shall not kill'.

Read this:

Wallace is upset because this killer failed to kill 'with mercy', a skill apparently he managed to teach his Army killers:

“I have said before that as the commander of SAS, responsible to train people to kill, I would never use these games because they show no controlled use of force and no mercy."

Now, why do commentators not ever wonder at the cold calculating words from Wallace, a self promoting 'Christian'?

As far as I can see, there is little difference between a SAS sniper trainer and a deranged maniac in Norway, unless the rather dodgy shibboleth of 'just war' is the Joker in the pack?

Harry Wilson | 27 July 2011  

A terrible tragedy, and entirely preventable. Like Andrew, when I heard that the perpetrator was Christian I too felt a degree of relief that it would not confirm the prejudices held by many. What it does demonstrate though is that religious fundamentalism, in all its forms, is dangerous.

I noticed that there was an unconfirmed report linking Breivik's manifesto to Cardinal Pell. http://www.smh.com.au/world/australian-leaders-mentioned-in-manifesto-20110726-1hxhd.html#ixzz1TAOh2fdG Sadly, noone is immune from having their views distorted by fundamentalists.

MBG | 27 July 2011  

As a result of Anders Breivik diabolic act in Norway, I am tempted to suggest that subjects like History, comparative religion and sociology be made compulsory and non-examinable in early schooling.

If we were able to make a journey through the mind of Breivik,I would imagine from his actions that we would map out a well defined cognitive profile that certain people belong to Norway, certain religions are original and that certain skin colours are Norwegian etc.

Regretably, such a cognitive profile can not have developed overnight and more affright nurtured in Norway arguably one of the most propitiate country on earth.

Overtly, there is hardly anyone safe anywhere in the word and as a result sectarianism should be nipped at the earliest opportunity possible.

For illustration purposes just have look at the Australia national fabric. Steming from pre-history aboriginals through to a penal colony, economic migrants and all the way down to the current parrells of history in refugees and skilled migrants it calls for sound socio-economic institutions.

Over and above Andrew Hamilton's red flag on careless public conversations, is also uncontrolled internet chats and email chain letters finding their way to poorly prepared young minds.

Hillan Nzioka | 27 July 2011  

Another atrocity inflicted on ordinary people in the name of Christ. When will church be put on the register of terrorist organisations?

Jason Bryce | 27 July 2011  

Hello Fr Hamilton, you have understood and written well about this loss of empathy.

We have slowly developed a society whose ethos is not one of union because my "I" recognises another "I" and feels a resonance with that other "I" (empathy) but somehow this society has had its ethos dulled or indeed slowly overshadowed so that there is no recognition and thus alienation.

The reasons for this are legion.

Anne Lastman | 27 July 2011  

MBG, in Breivik's 1,500 pages of planning notes, written over nine years, there are approving references to some of Cardinal Pell's statements.

I read here a lot here about his possible mental state, the Norwegian education system (one of the best in the world, by the way),"narcissistic", "maniac"," "cognitive profile"...I read nowhere of a human being's greatest gift, the ability to choose to do good or evil to others. This terrorist is a man who has chosen to do immense evil...I am a mental health advocate and I deplore the stigma which places such outrages as possibly severe mental illness.

This is a Catholic paper...I imagine most writers are practising Catholics (which I am no longer) and I would have expected an acceptance of this coherent, rational, politically well-educated person as one who has chosen to act in an evil way. He is a terrorist and must be held apart for the rest of his life.

Caroline Storm | 27 July 2011  

Recommended reading for everyone: ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’, by Karen Armstrong (Bodley Head, 2011). The names we choose and the names we put on one another (Muslim, Christian, Secularist, Atheist) can become themselves an objectification of us as individuals and a means to deny the sacred individuality of the other. In such a divided world, each of us lives with an identity that is ‘other’ as far as someone else is concerned. Empathy and understanding cannot find a way in such an environment. Karen Armstrong identifies a teaching common to all major faith traditions: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbour as yourself, as someone put it the other day. She thereby confronts all of us with the choice of empathy, whatever our religious beliefs, or lack of them. This book should be taught in every school, and I don’t care if it’s in a religious education class, an ethics class, a literature class. It should be the next book in your reading group.

PHILIP HARVEY | 27 July 2011  

I challenge Fr Hamilton's statement that Breivik "has been shown to be influenced by Christianity." Breivik's actions show that Christ's love and compassion for all played no part in this man's thinking. Furthermore no twisting of the teachings of Christ could be used to justify this wanton act slaughter. Even beyond this Breivik is being quoted as saying in his manifesto,“I’m not an excessively religious man."

Yet we have various posters here calling for religion to be banned, or tracing this man's evil back to his purported faith. Harry Wilson and Jason Bryce seem able to see only the evil done in the name of religion and blind to the untold good. This is a severely distorted and dishonest reading of history.

John Ryan | 27 July 2011  

The quiet way the Norwegians seem to be reacting to the outrage is instructive for us and other societies. For instance, at the Cathedral service in Oslo there was no security presence whatever, though the King and Queen were in the church, in an ordinary pew.

Rodney Wetherell | 27 July 2011  

Hi Andrew,
While I agree with your sentiments, I must ask why the Norwegian mass murderer in question is not referred to as a Christian Terrorist?

Patricia Bouma | 27 July 2011  

I remember in the late 90's when I travelled to Norway,,a local train trip we took between Roros and Trondheim. Feeling rather peckish I looked around for a dinner car or food attendant. Finding only a trolley with chocolate, sandwiches and coke, I noticed a small box next to the coke - ære boksen. vennligst legge. penger i her. I felt so humbled that I was trusted to pay this way.

As we travelled around, we camped in fields, walked farm roads - this was all OK - a mutual understanding of respect.
So hearing of this massacre, I feel deeply for the Norwegian people. I cry with them over their loss of loved ones. I pray that there will be healing and hope for the future. I so believe what Rodney Wetherell writes, 'that the quiet way the Norwegians seem to be reacting to the outrage is instructive for us and other societies.'

jo dallimore | 27 July 2011  

Thank you Fr Andy. As always a rational approach to a deranged young man. I do not know if he suffers a diagnosed mental illness or if he is just another victim of the right wing fundamentalists who peddle their vile judgements of others indiscriminately. In line with your final paragraph, I believe a concerted drive to discourage the too frequently aired hate mail that we see increasingly both as comments on this paper and across all media outlets would help to lift the spirits and charity of those vulnerable to popular hype.

Michelle Sydney | 27 July 2011  

@Michelle Sydney. I take exception to a couple of the points that you raise.

You make it appear that the right wing has a monopoly on vile judgments. I read blogs of all political persuasions. Those on the left are just as likely as the right to stoop to the sort of discourse that Fr Hamilton says must stop.

Further, you give no examples of the “vile judgments fired off indiscriminately”. I will take one writer mentioned in Breivik’s manifesto, Robert Spencer. Spencer has written extensively on the threat posed by those Muslim immigrants who wish to have Sharia Law prevail over the local laws and customs of the West. He says we have no place in the free West for laws that would punish people for leaving Islam, for being homosexual, for committing adultery. He states that free speech must include the freedom to criticize, or even mock, religion. We allow this presently with regard to Christianity. Islam has no right to demand an exemption.

Nothing of what Spencer, and others like him, has said of Islamic culture is any incitement to violence. It is plain straight analysis and criticism. If that is what you take for hate or vile judgments, then I suggest your understanding of these is skewed.

Patrick James | 27 July 2011  

This Norwegian incident is another very unfortunate world news story. Most of us can only show empathy to affected families and friends by prayer.

It is disappointing that the public and the media want to blame somebody. I believe it is unfair to blame any religion, education system or national society and culture.

I believe these atrocities are committed by people who are alienated and isolated from their communities. This alienation/isolation has resulted in irrational behavior and they are probably in need of pschyological help.

I believe all people would have a better understanding of different cultures, religions etc. by reading the quality non-fiction literature and watching cinema from all countries.

Mark Doyle | 27 July 2011  

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. JESUS: By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

AURELIUS | 28 July 2011  

For another very recent - and educated - take on Norway's tragedy, see article linked below by the well-known humanist and American lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Really worth a read. Go to:
Unfortunately, it seems, we are a world full of double standards.

Barry Milton | 31 July 2011  

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