Recently, I mentioned the new book by Ian Buruma. I bought a copy and have just finished it. Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is every bit as good as I hoped for. Buruma interviewed a wide range of people in Dutch society for the book, from all sides and walks of life. The result is a cross-section of voices that illuminate the scene and show that there are many strands of attitude and belief.
Buruma doesn’t have any easy answers for how Dutch society can accommodate these many strands, although he does comment on some of the people he interviews. He also paints portraits in his words of some of the players that he could not interview: Pim Fortuyn and his murderer, Volkert van der Graaf; Theo van Gogh and his murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri. Buruma shows that the two murderers shared attitudes in common:
It is a characteristic of Calvinism to hold moral principles too rigidly, and this might be considered a vice as well as a virtue of the Dutch. It played a part in the makeup of Van der Graaf, as well as Mohammed Bouyeri, and even Theo van Gogh. The two killings, of Van Gogh and Fortuyn, were principled murders.
And, says Buruma, committed by a pair of society’s losers. He mentions the psychiatric report on Bouyeri, prepared for his trial:
[Professor Ruud] Peter’s report, prepared for the court, makes for strange reading, because he attempts to find coherence in these violent ravings [in Bouyeri’s writings] where often there is none. “Ideological and religious development” is a rather grand description of Mohammed’s thinking. But the report is worth studying nontheless, not so much for what it says about Islam, but for what it says about the revolutionary fantasies of a confused and very resentful young man. These are not so different from the fantasies of other confused and resentful young men in the past. You can find them in the novels of Dostoyevsky or Joseph Conrad, desperadoes who imagine themselves as part of a small elite, blessed with moral purity, surrounded by a world of evil. They are obsessed with the idea of violent death as a divinely inspired cleansing agent of worldly corruption.
In a weird sort of way, I am reminded of the ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where the hero, Sam Lowry, retreats into madness as a way of escaping from the society in which he lives. The last words of the film are Mr. Helpmann, the Minister of Information, saying to Lowry’s friend and torturer: “I think we’ve lost him“.
In a perverse parallel, it seems to me that Bouyeri has retreated into his world of religious zealotry from which he will never escape. He sits in his prison cell surrounded by his holy books and continues to dream his revolutionary fantasies. I think we’ve lost him. But we cannot afford to lose more like him.