A Tale of Two Terrorists

Picture of sea of roses after 22 July terrorist attack in Oslo

Anders Behring Breivik has become on of the world’s domestic terrorists, and has attacked his own people with violence and hatred. Sixteen years ago Timothy McVeigh and other members of the Aryan Republican Army bombed the Murrah Office Building in Oklahoma City, and killed 168 of their countrymen. It is the deadliest domestic-based act of terror in US history. Until the 11th of September 2001, it was the deadliest terror attack ever to have occurred in the US. We Americans know what Norwegians are going through. As Bill Clinton said: «We feel your pain».

While politicians and experts try to explain the inexplicable, it may be fruitful to compare McVeigh and Breivik. They have several things in common. Both believed that their home country had been ruined by globalization and immigration. Breivik’s extensive manifesto «2083: A European Declaration of Independence» paints a grim picture of intolerant Muslim immigrants executing a well-planned operation to take over European countries in order to fulfill their divine mission. His premeditated and cold-blooded execution of 77 of his own countrymen was, as he saw it, a battle against socially inclusive policies and a multicultural society promoted by a Labor Party government. 


McVeigh attacked both the greed of multinational companies and a society that he believed had become too multicultural to take care of its American-born «true» citizens. In a letter to the editor of the local paper, McVeigh, who had just returned from the first Gulf War, complained that the birthright of the American middle classes had been stolen. He felt that an indifferent State had given it away to a mass of ungrateful immigrants and welfare scroungers. «The American dream has all but disappeared, and it has been replaced by people struggling to afford next week’s groceries», McVeigh wrote. Both he and Breivik tried to inspire their Aryan countrymen to act. After having bombed the federal building in Oklahoma – which represented the oppressive and undemocratic government, which had capitulated in the face of greedy companies and banks – McVeigh hoped that others would follow suit and reclaim the State for the people. Breivik was less concerned with the State and more with the destruction of pure Norwegian culture which, due to the government, was being watered down in a stormy sea of multiculturalism.

For the last five years I have carried out research on and written about extreme right-wing circles in the USA and Scandinavia. I have interviewed 45 current American neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, Aryan youth, Patriots, Minutemen, and members of rural militias. I have interviewed 25 former neo-Nazis in Sweden. All the Swedes were participants in the government-sponsored program EXIT, which gives support and training to those wishing to leave the neo-Nazi environment. Like their American counterparts, white Scandinavian racists come from lower middle-class families. Their fathers are painters and decorators, carpenters, and road workers. Some come from small family farms. All of the EXIT participants are downwardly socially mobile: they have sporadic odd-jobs, have little or no control over their own labor or place of work, and own no companies. Almost all are male. Of the 30 EXIT users I interviewed, two were female. Of the 350-plus that have participated in the program, only 16 were women.

Teenage masculinity

The Scandinavians are usually significantly younger than their American counterparts. The median age of the Americans I interviewed was 28. The median age of the EXIT members was 16 (when they were in the process of leaving the movement). Most were recruited through skinhead music, and they viewed their actions in a less ideological light than the Americans. For Scandinavians it was more about teenage masculinity. «When you reach puberty, it is like you have to pick a side», Klas, a member of the program, told me: «You have to choose whether you want to be a Nazi, an anti-Nazi, a punk or a hip-hopper. In today’s society, you cannot just choose to be neutral.»

Markus (18) says: «As a child I was often beaten up, both at home and at school. When I was 11, I started looking up to my step-brother. He was 18 and a skinhead. He looked after me and cared about me. Once, after I was beaten up by five boys (three Swedes and two immigrants), he started talking about those Goddamn foreigners. I was only 11 and did not have any racist views at the time, but I was influenced by what he said. When I went around with him, I suddenly got revenge for everything that had happened to me in the past. All the people I was afraid of were suddenly afraid of me. It felt really good. My step-brother started giving me white power records, a t-shirt with a nationalistic slogan, and finally a bomber jacket. I went from listening to boy bands to listening to white power music.»

Young Scandinavian boys are looking for a place in society where they can become men. White American right-wing extremists are instead trying to take back something they feel has been taken away from them, something they feel they have a right to. With his hatred for the government, Anders Behring Breivik’s background is more similar to that of the American extremists rather than the Scandinavians, and he shares their fear of the changing role of men in society. Both Behring Breivik and McVeigh use masculinity to explain what has happened to them, and how feminism, the State and immigration have victimized white men. There are also differences; Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people when he bombed a public building. That is not the same as killing people one by one. American extremists focus on the State, and want to try to defend themselves against it. They seldom plan attacks against individuals, as Breivik did.


I have learned a lot about how right-wing extremists view the developments taking place in Norway, and why they feel that they have a responsibility to stop them. One of the most important findings is that the way in which they feel that global economic changes and immigration have damaged them can be better understood if we look at gender, and in particular masculinity. (Please do not misunderstand me; it is not the case that an understanding of masculinity can replace political economics, globalization, the financial crisis or the perceived degradation of the national culture. Not at all. At the same time, I do not believe that you can understand right-wing extremism without also understanding gender). 

Firstly, most right-wing extremists feel emasculated by the political and economic conditions of the time. In the US they feel that the «Nanny State» has taken away their masculinity through taxation, economic policies and initiatives that are meant to secure rights for all. They feel that the government gives advantages to everyone else, non-whites, women and immigrants, and that they have lost the possibility of supporting themselves as free and independent individuals. The castration and emasculation of the native white man have reduced a nation of warriors to a flock of lemmings, or «sheeple», as they often call other white men. In The Turner Diaries the writer William Pierce sneers at «the whimpering collapse of the blonde man». White men have surrendered and lost the right to be free:

«As a result of the media-created image «the new man», men have become increasingly wimpish and pacifistic, gained less authority, become more «sensitive», less competitive, more androgynous and less dominant. The media, the gay lobby and the feminist movement have cheered. The number of feminine men is increasing. We have a legion of mommy’s boys and wusses; non-aggressive, non-physical, bewildered, indecisive and frightened limp-wristed men. In theory and practice they are still heterosexual, but they do not have one iota of macho spirit.» 

Second, extremists use gender as a means to problematize and fight against the «other». White, protestant masculinity is pitted against black, Jewish, homosexual and immigrant masculinity. They are either too masculine (bloodthirsty, lustful, cunning, greedy predators), or not masculine enough (feminine, dependent and unmanly). Racism, anti-Semitism, nativism and homophobia gain unique expression through discrediting the masculinity of the «other». 

Thirdly, the American movement vows to resurrect manliness, and uses this to enlist new members. By participating in these male groups, one can contribute to protecting white women from these voracious beasts. They want the admiration and love of these women, and in this way to win back their masculinity. 

American right-wing extremists offer a «real» masculinity and manliness, where men are able to reap the benefits of their own work. They make sure that the Jewish economic elite does not castrate them, and that they are not at the mercy of a welfare state controlled by blacks and feminists. Their masculinity is a militarized version of the heroic John Rambo. They will use their god-given right to bear arms if someone or something, for example a State power structure, robs them of their masculinity.

Fear of feminism

I am currently working through Ander Behring Breikvik’s 1518-page manifesto. The same themes recur here. Breivik links feminism with liberalism and multiculturalism. He claims that feminism is responsible for a U-turn in society, whether in the media or the military, whereby «the man is inferior and the woman superior». As a result of this comprehensive development «today’s men are expected to be a touchy-feely subspecies who bow to the radical feminist agenda.»

Breivik plays with two gendered stereotypes of Muslim immigrants in Europe. One the one side they are rational and goal-orientated in their invasion of European society, and on the other they are murderous religious fanatics, who are completely out of control. In a video (which is an abbreviated version of the manifesto, released online shortly before the terror attacks), you also see a young blonde boy standing between a dancing hippie with flowers in his hair on the one side, and a bearded Muslim fanatic on the other. Both are highly problematic pictures of masculinity. 

ABB’s concluding call to arms is illustrated with a large-breasted woman with a big gun, wearing a tight t-shirt with the word «infidel» and Arabic letters – a declaration that his army will go to war against the Muslim invasion. 

This suggests that in this case also it is impossible to understand these gruesome acts without at the same time trying to understand how gender is used as a rhetorical and political tool by domestic terrorists. A number of factors and events make my research more important than ever. Across the world, lower middle class men feel that they are being subjected to a humiliating emasculation. The financial crisis has marginalized many of these men. They feel that their world has been turned upside-down, and the privileges they feel entitled to are being taken away from them. The concern regarding international terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and the election of the first African American US president, have further intensified this.

American right-wing extremists have used these concerns for all they are worth. While some saw 9/11 as a signal to get rid of Muslims, immigrants and Jews, others were more sanguine. When it came down to it, the targets of the terror were Wall Street, the American government, and the support of Israel. «We can work with these Islam boys», said a representative of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Many right-wing extremists, among them the American Aryans, viewed the terrorists with a certain awe, and admired their «balls” and «phallic bravery». «It is a scandal that, with a population of 150 million white Americans, so few are willing to make the same sacrifice», complained Rocky Suhayda, chairman of a Nazi party in the state of Michigan. «A bunch of towel head/sand niggers put our great White Movement to shame,» he stated. 

As researchers, politicians and citizens, we should pay attention to these words. Gendered shame is producing mass murderers. Research that maps out the sociological connections between globalization, downward social mobility, gender and ethnicity, can help us to learn more about this gendered rage, and enable us to deal with the challenges linked to both global and domestic terror. 

Editorial Comment

Picture: Camilla Skriung / Translation: Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth, Anne Bitsch, Anne Kari Hinna, Anna Young.

This article is given us by the Norwegian feminist magazine Fett.