Entry from April 23, 2012

Everybody knows the old definition of chutzpah. It’s the guy who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. Well, now we have a new definition, courtesy of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian nut-case who murdered 77 people last summer and is now undergoing a kind of trial in Oslo. I say a kind of trial, because his guilt is not in dispute. He himself brags of his deeds and says he would do them again. The trial is meant to decide the case not against him but between two lots of psychiatrists, one of which claims that he’s a paranoid schizophrenic while the other claims he’s not. It’s not just an academic question either because, if he’s not crazy, by Norwegian law he can only be sentenced to 21 years in prison, or just under one hundred days per murder. If he is crazy he can be kept in a psychiatric hospital indefinitely.

That’s the kind of choice that makes one sympathize with the judge who was dismissed from the trial for writing on Facebook that “The death penalty is the only fair outcome in this case.” As Dominic Lawson wrote in the London Sunday Times (pay wall), the trial seems “designed more to protect the integrity of a certain model of society than to reflect the cruelty of the crimes committed against specific individuals by another human being.”As for the point at issue, however, the matter would have been better decided on the basis of th e fact that Breivik’s worst fear is said to be that he will be found clinically insane. But in effect the trial itself, in which he has had days to spout his craziness before the representatives of Norwegian justice solemnly assembled, is its own an acknowledgment of his sanity. As he himself wrote in his 1801-page online manifesto: “Your trial offers you a stage to the world.”

It is a stage, we might add, which he means to use in order to parlay the notoriety naturally accruing to his atrocity into a kind of celebrity. Which brings us back to the new definition of chutzpah. Today in court, according to The New York Times, Anders Breivik said: “When people say they have lost their most beloved, I also lost my entire family. I lost my friends. It was my choice. I sacrificed them, but I lost my entire family and friends on 22 July. I lost everything. So to a certain extent, I understand.” He understands. He, too, has suffered. He has feelings and, like all feelings on the media stage, they make a claim upon our sympathies — perhaps even an equal claim with that of his victims.

In the same way, he said last week in court that, if you look beyond all his murders of mostly helpless teenagers, he’s really a nice guy underneath it all. According to The Daily Mail, we might miss that underlying niceness only because he deliberately undertook a regimen of “de-emotionalising” in preparation for his attack. “And many people will describe me as a nice person or a sympathetic, caring person to friends and anyone. I’ve had a dehumanisation strategy towards those I considered valid targets so I could come to the point of killing them.”

Of course, I’m not qualified to pronounce on the question of this man’s sanity, but I can tell you that he’s sane enough to follow the well-worn path to a kind of redemption, the redemption of celebrity, that other malefactors from O.J. to Rod Blagojevich and John Edwards have trodden before him. Like Herostratus the ancient Greek who is said to have burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus just for the sake of the fame he expected to enjoy as the man who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Breivik sees some excuse for his evil in the fame it has brought him. But he has adapted his search for glory to the demands of the celebrity culture — namely that those who seek fame in the media age must first affirm their ordinariness, their refusal to distinguish themselves as better than their neighbors. He’s a regular guy. A “nice person.” Celebrities, as US magazine reminds us hebdomadally, are just like us. Breivik modifies the formula by saying that he had to act a part, deliberately submerging his ordinary, nice-guy self under a carapace of unfeeling and “dehumanisation,” but celebrity demands these assurances that this killing machine is not the real him. Dare we hope that here, at last, the celebrity culture will draw the line of exclusion against those who would exploit it to excuse their unspeakable acts?

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