Global Ethics Corner: Norway: When Belief Justifies Murder

July 29, 2011

The power of belief is terrifying.

Norway's national tragedy feels inexplicable. How can you murder innocents?

But, terrorists do it, often intentionally. Innocents are killed because they are not defined as people, but as labels (commie, fascist, imperialist, oppressor); not as individuals, but as symbols of despised groups (Jew, Arab, Tutsi, Hutu).

The logic can be convoluted. In the early 1900s some Marxists absurdly argued as follows: attack society—then the authorities will kill many in reprisal—this will provoke a revolutionary bloodbath and a people's government—thus wanton violence will lead to a just society.

Anders Breivik was a terrorist. He methodically stalked, shot, and killed dozens of teens.

These killings were sanctioned by his personal political beliefs. Religious fanaticism can be similarly destructive. In Breivik's mind children weren't innocents, they were symbols of unjust policies. They were potential future leaders of a despised Socialist party.

His lawyer, Geir Lippestad, says he is insane, and to many he must be crazy, otherwise the tragedy is incomprehensible. "He believes that he is in a war and in war you can do things like that," says Lippestad.

However, soldiers and police are different. They act as authorized agents of governments; they are sanctioned to kill. The governments are presumed to be legitimate in the eyes of their citizens. Furthermore, the agents are usually constrained by rules of engagement, and there are legal consequences if unsanctioned deaths occur.

Do you believe anything strongly enough to take a life without the sanction of authorities? Can any belief justify the killing of innocents? Where do you stand between belief and action?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Steven Erlanger and Alan Cowell, "Lawyer says rampage suspect may be ínsane", International Herald Tribune, July 27, 2011, p. 7.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Johannes Grodem
Andrea Booher
Hayden Pernia
Anders Behring Breivik
Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3
Lars Bjørkevoll
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