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Stories about Breivik make his terror attack a personal rather than a societal problem


Authors, journalists and researchers who have tried to explain Anders Behring Breivik’s terror attack in Norway on 22 July 2011 tend to separate Breivik from Norwegian society and instead attribute the tragedy to his personal failure to ‘fit in’. This is the conclusion of a new doctoral thesis in gender studies from the University of Gothenburg.

Mia Eriksson has studied how books and articles by Karl Ove Knausgård, Toril Moi, Åsne Seierstad and others tell the story about Anders Breivik. One of her conclusions is that conventional explanatory models of terror attacks assume that the perpetrator is an Islamist and, thus, the models do not apply when the terrorist is interpreted to be Christian or secular.

Mia Eriksson. Photo: Private.‘When it comes to Islamist terror attacks, culture and religion are often defined as important factors behind the terrorist’s radicalisation. In the case of Breivik, the radicalisation is instead considered an effect of his personal ”inability” to be successful in the labour market, in romantic relationships and in adult life in general,’ says Eriksson.

He is described as childish and immature, and many of the texts emphasise his ambivalent sexual identity and his mother’s mental and emotional health problems as important factors behind his attack. The texts largely ignore the social, cultural and political circumstances that can lead to far-right extremist and racist acts of terrorism.

‘When they talk about Norwegian society, it’s mainly to show how Breivik stood out from what they see as “typical” Norwegian behaviour and activities.’

As a result, while Islamist terrorists are viewed as a threat against Western society, Breivik becomes a mere inconceivable deviation. He is described as a loser and a misfit rather than as somebody ‘we’ need to be afraid of. This in turn means that he does not fit into the threat profile that terrorism researchers and news media tend to promote when they talk about terrorism.

Eriksson also explores what it feels like to read about violence and terrorism, and whether the oftentimes very detailed descriptions of the violence on Utøya fill an ethical function.

‘If we understand “ethical” as a willingness to change and improve the world we live in, these descriptions rather resemble entertainment violence, where the purpose is not to encourage reflection or political action but instead to shock the reader,’ says Eriksson.

More information:
Mia Eriksson, tel.: +46 (0)760 60 72 27, email:
Thesis title: Berättelser om Breivik. Affektiva läsningar av våld och terrorism (Stories about Breivik: Affective readings of violence and terrorism)
Date, time and venue of the public defence: Friday 11 March at 1.30 pm, Lilla hörsalen, Faculty of Arts, Renströmsgatan 6, Gothenburg
External reviewer: Professor Stefan Jonsson, Linköping
The thesis can be ordered from: