Mass murderer is no martyr


By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

July 30, 2011


Last week’s massacre in Norway was motivated as much by extreme personal pathology as by extremist politics. The killer launched a virtual publicity campaign along with his blood-filled campaign of terror, in the process taking the lives of more than 90 innocent victims.

As details surface in the days and weeks ahead about Anders Behring Breivik, the alleged perpetrator of Friday's killing spree, we will hopefully be able to make some sense of what now seems so unfathomable. By viewing this case exclusively through the lens of terrorism, however, we might easily miss the fundamental personal driving forces behind the accused assailant’s hideous crimes.  Breivik’s political extremism and anti-Muslim ideology were important for justifying his heinous offense and for concealing his true motivation. Yet the 32-year-old man appeared desperate to become a celebrity, to feel important, to achieve fame, to be a powerful commando in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. 

Clearly, Breivik shares much in common with other mass killers. Most of them do not just suddenly snap and go berserk. Rather their crimes are well-planned, methodical executions. They often see themselves as victims of injustice, hoping to become a champion for right over wrong.

Typically, mass murderers do not select victims at random. Rather, those targeted are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be responsible for the killer's misfortunes or unhappiness. The victims can be blamed personally, or just as members of a group against which the killer has some deep-seated hostility. The defining characteristic can be based on race, gender, religion, lifestyle or politics.  In addition, victims are occasionally proxies purposely chosen to get even with the perceived enemy.

In this regard, Breivik never attacked Muslims or immigrants, those about whom he ranted in his writings. Instead, he targeted children of the political leaders he blamed for promoting liberal immigration policies. Killing innocent teenagers yielded the greatest impact and hurt society where it was most vulnerable. The end result was to maximize public outrage and, therefore, the attention the killer would receive.

Most mass killers have training and access to weapons of mass destruction.  Breivik was indeed fascinated with guns.  His prolonged killing spree of youngsters on an island camp was committed with an automatic rifle and a handgun.  Moreover, his farm business made it possible to purchase the large amount of fertilizer he would need to construct a powerful car bomb apparently used, in part, to distract and preoccupy the police on the mainland.

Like most other mass killers, Breivik had a troubled biography, beginning at an early age.  His parents divorced when he was an infant, and he later broke off the relationship with his father.  His education after high school was informal and self-administered.  And his marginal business ventures likely left him feeling like a failure. Moreover, still living with his mother, Breivik didn’t seem to have friends or dates. 

Although there may be warning signs, including angry threats vocalized or uploaded, these red flags do not, unfortunately, become clear until after the deadly fact.  Similarly, the killer in Norway may have planned his attack for years, but his unsuspecting associates and acquaintances were apparently shocked when they learned of his enormous killing spree.

How probable is it that the accused killer was inspired only by a desire to defend Norwegian culture from the influx of Muslim immigrants, as he claimed?  The sincerity of Breivik’s political motivation is impugned by his verbatim plagiarism of large sections of the Unabomber’s manifesto as his own.  More likely, the mass murderer desires to be taken seriously, to be viewed as an accomplished protector of his country and a champion of right over wrong.

Like Seung-Hui Cho, the killer of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Breivik had high-quality, “Hollywood-style” photos of himself ready for distribution to the press.  One showed him holding a high-powered rifle and depicted him as a fierce and dangerous man, someone you could hardly ignore. 

Up to this point, Breivik has successfully achieved his mission, not only taking numerous lives, but also gaining worldwide infamy.  His extremist ideas continue to spread like wild fire through the Internet; he has gone from obscurity to celebrity in only days.  The accused’s sole disappointment might be that his arraignment was closed to the public and press by the presiding judge.  Let’s hope that Breivik’s trial will also be off limits, robbing him of additional opportunities for self-gratification.

Moving forward, while attempting to shed more light on this horrific crime, we must avoid giving the accused the limelight.  Having the chance to articulate his motivation and expound on his ideas on a worldwide stage is clearly what Breivik wants, but far more than he deserves.


James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors at Northeastern University and co-authors of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.