Ever since news came out regarding the atrocities perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway last Friday, it has proved challenging to publicly describe this man and his motives.
Police officer Roger Anderson initially described Breivik as an "ethnic" Norwegian and a "Christian fundamentalist," adding his political opinions leaned "to the right," without giving further details. On his facebook profile, Breivik described himself as "conservative," "Christian," single, and interested in hunting and games such as World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2.
Before long, we learned of Breivik's online 1500 page manifesto and we began to obtain some details regarding the context for these labels. The manifesto was almost a decade in the making and utilizes quotes (some clearly out-of-context) from writers from across the political spectrum to outline his vision for sparking a civil war in Europe that will result in the extermination of Marxists and expulsion of Muslims from Europe by 2083. It also explains Breivik's understanding of Christianity as a "cultural, social identity and moral platform" but that he does not "have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God." We learned that the divorce of his parents when he was very young bothered him and he doesn't like his father very much.
When the news first broke and details were very sketchy, the assumption in certain media as well as in the online world was that this terrorist act had the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation. When it became clear that was not the case, the potential "Islam extremist" became a "Christian extremist." Continued use of this label has been slammed by some as evidence of a liberal media who now have their "poster boy" to use as a "counter-example whenever anyone is concerned about the war on terror."
The truth is, given what we know now, continuing to associate Breivik with any of the causes or labels he claims is fatuous.
True, labels provide an easy shorthand but they end up deceiving rather than informing. It would be nice if there were neat explanations to help us feel safer from these sorts of atrocities. Labels prod us to think, "As long as I don't associate with people who have x, y, z characteristics, my risk of being faced with tragedies of this sort are minimized."
Deep down we know better. There are philosophical and theological explanations that need to be considered when we are attempting to make sense of situations like these. Journalists generally do a pretty lousy job of helping us through that. They require shorthand. And while in the early phases of the tragedy, it is understandable that mistaken labels are used (although it is avoiding such mistakes that separate good journalists from poor ones.) Still, as the details emerge, it is incumbent on all responsible journalists to choose words that avoid reductionist deception and communicate truth.
Given what is known today about Breivik, the only label that seems to suit is madman.