By Brigitte L. Nacos
Spending all of last week at a conference in Ankara I did not have an opportunity to follow the news media as closely as I normally do. Yet, channel surfing early in the morning and late at night in my hotel room was enough to conclude that the prominent and massive coverage of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s trial afforded him a global stage to explain and promote his anti-Islamic ideology and try to enlist supporters in the process.
After describing the gruesome details of his killing spree that took the lives of 77 persons last year, Breivik claimed that he studied Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks for instruction and inspiration. Calling Al Qaeda the “most successful revolutionary movement in the world,” he said he had learned from the organization’s successes and failures. Obviously sticking to his claim that he is not a lone wolf but part of a group of likeminded comrades determined to defend Christian Europe against the onslaught of Muslims, he told the court, "We want to create a European version of Al Qaeda.”
Obviously, the Norwegian court was well aware that Breivik would exploit the trial to spread his messages of hate. But in democratic systems, where citizens need to be fully informed in order to make educated decisions when they participate in the political process, public information is a highly esteemed value. Rightly, so--even in the face of occasional misuse and abuse.
Although cameras and microphones were banned from the court room, journalists reported at great length and detail Breivik’s exploitations of the global media stage. To be sure, the coverage was prominent and plentiful after the attacks. But at that time, the focus was more or at least equally as much on the victims rather than the perpetrator. This time around, it has been the Breivik show so far.
The Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh received fan letters and marriage proposals as he awaited first his trial and later his execution; Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda won supporters and recruits after 9/11. Breivik, too, may have endeared himself and his convictions to some people who already shared his extremist views.
As Matt Pearce reported in the Los Angeles Times, 23-year old American Kevin Forbes of Massachusetts exchanged letters with Breivik and told Norwegian TV, “I believe that Breivik is a rational man who committed atrocious but necessary actions.”
To be sure, the majority of people in Europe and elsewhere reject everything that Breivik has said and done in disgust. But it is not unusual that highly publicized acts of terrorism and crime result in copy-cat deeds. Moreover, successful methods of attacks used by terrorists and criminal are sometimes carried out by individuals or groups already committed to violence.
Nearly three years ago, taking into account the dramatic advances in communication technology in the beginning of the 21st century, I published an article in the on-line journal Perspectives on Terrorism that revisited media contagion theories--mostly in the context of terrorism and to a lesser extent concerning crime. My conclusion was that “when it comes to international and domestic terrorism, various kinds of media figure quite prominently in both tactical and inspirational contagion.” The pro-copycat conclusion seems as relevant today as it was earlier. Indeed, Breivik’s terrorism may well qualify as a case of contagion since he himself revealed in court that he studied and learned from 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.