Anders Breivik was just a “lone psychopath” says Tim Stanley. To which we might reply - yeah, just like David Copeland, Timothy McVeigh, Jared Lee Loughner (arguably), Tony Lecomber and Robert Cottage were lone psychopaths. The ease of this retort lends weight to the notion that, perhaps, "right-wing" ideology did play some role in Breivik’s crimes.
The truth is, though, that I’m not sure it is at all possible to say, one way or the other.
The claim that there is some causality from Breivik’s beliefs to his crime rests upon a probabilistic notion of causality. Obviously, not all right-wingers are mass murderers. But then, not all smokers get cancer. In both cases, the claim is that being right-wing, or smoking, raises the odds of being violent or getting cancer.
Which brings us straight to the problem. Mass murder is extremely rare. Whilst this is excellent for humanity, it is awful for the social scientist - because any inference from tiny samples must contain a large standard error.
What’s more, even if we concede that there is a correlation between right wing ideology and murderous behaviour, the correlation needn’t go from ideology to terrorism. It might instead be the other way round. Maybe psychopaths, with their lack of empathy for others and paranoia, are disproportionately drawn towards some types of right-wing ideology. Perhaps if right-wing ideology didn’t exist, Breivik would have been just an ideology-free mass killer. But this is a counterfactual we cannot see.
Or maybe there’s some third factor. Maybe real or imagined social tensions breed both right-wing ideology and murderous tendencies, with no direct link from one to the other.
The data, then, just don’t permit robust inferences. Which means that we are thrown back onto our Bayesian priors. If you think right-wing ideology in unpleasant and violent, then you’ll think it played a role in Breivik’s crimes. And if you don’t, you won’t. In this sense, comment about Breivik tells us more about the commenter than Breivik. Which means there is a rather nice irony in Boris Johnson’s claim that Breivik was “essentially a narcissist and egomaniac.”