Men who showed why extremism fails

Any comparison between Lance Armstrong, the 40-year-old Texan stripped of seven Tour de France titles at the end of a decades-long doping scandal, and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik may seem incongruous but they have at least one thing in common.

Breivik, 33, was sent to jail for a maximum term yesterday when judges declared him sane enough to answer for the murder of 77 people last year. An unrepentant Breivik gave the Oslo court a clenched-fist salute before being sent down.

Armstrong, after years of shrugging off doping accusations — and viciously attacking those brave enough to make them — threw in the towel yesterday and said he would not fight them any longer. This surrender has been taken as a tacit admission and, according to the World Anti-Doping Code, he will be stripped of his seven Tour titles, the 2000 Olympic bronze, and all other titles, awards, and money he has won since Aug 1998. He will be barred for life from competing, coaching, or having any official role in any sport that subscribes to the World Anti-Doping Code.

Throughout that career, and his battle with cancer, the American showed a version of the extremism — a belief in himself, an unwavering certainty, a deep sense of victimhood, and an almost regal disdain for the rules that governed his sport — that drove Breivik to kill eight people at government buildings in Oslo and 69 at a Labour party youth camp on Utoya island.

Though Armstrong harmed nobody but himself, and maybe those foolish enough to follow his example, his life and his competitiveness seem driven with the kind of blind and deaf extremism that turned an insane or evil Breivik into the very antithesis of Norway’s proactive democracy, its commitment to inclusion and tolerance, and the calmness in public affairs may countries would benefit from by emulating.

One man’s extremism was self-destructive, the other’s so murderous that he killed 77 Norwegians and injured scores more. Another thing they have in common is that they are both pathetic, pitiable failures.

Armstrong’s decades of denial and cheating are now confirmed, though many have long believed him a corrupt fraud. His self-image has been shattered and his presence in society or sport is at least questionable if not, for a period at least, unwelcome.

Breivik, rather than provoking his compatriots to take a hard line against immigration, especially Muslim immigration, has encouraged Norway to recommit to principles of openness and tolerance. By advancing his amoral xenophobia he has strengthened his opponents’ resolve and position. His intolerance has made Norway more tolerant.

The lesson in this may be that extremism never works. It can cause chaos, and history can offer far too many examples of this, but it hardly ever prevails. Moderation and the centre usually hold because that is where the beliefs of the great majority of people lie.

How wonderful it would be if those, once styled as republican dissidents, but recently united as the IRA, recognised this and accepted that they have no mandate, no authority, and little or no support, and disbanded before inflicting the dishonesty of Armstrong or the savagery of Breivik on an island that has suffered more than its share at the hands of extremists of all hues.


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