D J Taylor: A man who knows what it means to be civilised – and chooses not to be

 

Share
Related Topics

Just when you had assumed that the Breivik trial couldn't get any worse – with Thursday's revelation that its subject had wanted to decapitate a former Norwegian prime minister – it plunged into a yet more subterranean depth. Even to watch the fragments of Breivik's testimony come through on text services was bad enough – the self-proclaimed "nice" man who had deliberately hardened his heart to commit mass murder. God knows what the impact of this must have been in a mesmerised courtroom.

There are literary parallels here, the thought of art anticipating life long before the brutal reductiveness of the Breivik masterplan. Like someone out of Dostoevsky novel, here is a man who knows exactly how a civilised human being ought to behave, and yet consciously sets all moral scruple aside to follow the dictates of his warped ideal. The same stultifying scent blows up from Pure, Timothy Mo's new novel about Muslim fundamentalism in the Far East: purity is purity, however much dirt gets churned up in the course of its imposition.

In Breivik's testimony, too, lurks a hint that the trial will not accomplish what it set out to achieve, or rather that the achievement of it may throw up one or two implications more horrifying than the slaughter that set it in motion. The point of allowing Breivik to discuss his motivations and methodology before the world's television cameras is to establish whether he is mad or sane. Almost everything he has said so far suggests the latter.

Legal history is full of psychopaths eagerly dilating on the voices that directed them to behave in the way they did.

Breivik, on the other hand, either is, or gives a very good impression of being, a man who knew exactly what he was doing, weighed up the likely consequences of his actions and went steaming in regardless, confident that destiny was on his side. The voices he spoke of yesterday were saying "Don't do it, don't do it". This was the head ruling the heart, the conscious mind overruling instinctive taboos. Breivik also spoke of his trick of relying on "technical, de-emotionalised language" to talk about his crimes. "If I was going to use normalised language, it would not have been possible."

A wide-eyed dement, waved on by invisible hands, is in the last resort not responsible for his actions. On this evidence, the crystalline logic of the fanatic is a great deal harder to deal with.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links