Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Norway: Why Labels Matter

July 27, 2011

Immediately after news broke of the horrible murders in Norway, the label “Christian fundamentalist” was attached to self-confessed mass killer Anders Behring Breivik by the press, possibly fueled by police reports. A blog by Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post referred to the media’s widespread use of that term in covering the killing spree. The Huffington Post commented about his supposed “Christian conservative views.” In the “Faith & Reason” blog of USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman, discussing Breivik, asked, “What’s meant by Norwegian Christian Fundamentalist?” To be fair, Achenbach and Grossman both hedged in suggesting any link between the killer and any “Christian” movement, but the damage was done: media coverage had already created an inference of a “Christian” influence behind Breivik’s despicable acts. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. In exploring his background, The New York Times has portrayed a man whose thinking began to unravel after his estrangement from his father and then later when his sister moved to America. A picture of a possibly delusional man is now emerging, corroborated by Breivik’s lawyer who is considering an insanity plea for him.

But it is the killer’s rambling 1500-page “manifesto” that makes the case that the media was complicit in wrongly connecting this mass murderer to Christianity. In all, Breivik referred to Jesus Christ 16 times in his tome. However, he cited Thomas Jefferson a total of 18 times. Linking Breivik to anything Christian therefore makes as little sense as saying that the mass murderer was motivated by Jeffersonian democracy. What is tragically ironic is that when he bothered to cite Christ, Breivik’s words show a kind of shocking disconnect from the reality of his intended actions. At page 197 of the manifesto, he refers to Matthew 26:52 and quotes the words of Jesus thus: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” And then, as if to give profound evidence of this disconnect, the soon-to-be killer Breivik praises the “validity and wisdom of these teachings.” I found only one mainstream media report that actually addressed this mislabeling offense head-on and with journalistic precision. In his blog titled, “Is ‘Christian fundamentalist’ label correct for Norway terror suspect?” CNN’s Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff cited multiple experts, including those in Norway. Their conclusion, as one of them stated, was that the “Christian fundamentalist” label was simply an irrelevant “red herring.” Sadly, most of the media appear to have been ready to go fishing for it.