Less Than Finnish(ed)

Inhumanity is Not a Cultural Phenomenon—It is an International Problem


Published: December 13, 2007

In a 1945 essay, George Orwell explained nationalism as “first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled good or bad.” Orwell contends that this type of “nationalism” does not require a “nation” as it can “work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.” Nationalism, in this sense, equates to blind hatred of others due to an inability to recognize the goodness of humanity in those perceived as different.

Last month, negative nationalism reared its ugly head when an 18-year-old student living in the small town of Tuusula, Finland used the tenants of this hateful ideology as justification for an atrocious act of violence. Arriving at Jokela High School just before noon on Nov. 7, the student, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, opened fire on his classmates and teachers with a .22 caliber pistol. Prior to turning the weapon on himself, Auvinen gunned down eight individuals, including the school principal, the school nurse, one female student and five male students. Before these victims were laid to rest, the question of blame became exacerbated by the fact that the violence occurred in Finland, a nation consistently ranked among the happiest and safest in the world.

“Shocking and tragic” were the words Finnish President Tarja Hallonen used to describe the event, the first of its kind since nearly 20 years ago. Nonetheless, many journalists were quick to blame this isolated incident on Finland itself. Some claimed that Auvinen was merely tapping into some dark region of the “Finnish psyche” formed by the dreariness of Finland’s impersonal landscape and inhospitable climate. Others pointed out Finland’s high gun ownership rates and loose regulations on firearms as the root of the problem, though a majority of these weapons are used solely for hunting. One journalist went so far as to compare Auvinen to Ukko, a god from Finnish mythology imbued with the earth-shattering power of thunder; Auvinen “brought thunder down on a small frozen township,” the journalist wrote. Still, the fact remains that a cold environment, a penchant for hunting and a mythological entity cannot possibly be the chief psychological factors in this situation. The mere insinuation that Finland is solely to blame for Auvinen’s actions presents a narrow-minded and uncritical interpretation of the underlying causes.

Other journalists regurgitated an even more condemning phrase to describe the tragedy:  “An American Style School Shooting.” Though this interpretation is misleading, the negative influence of American culture on Auvinen is difficult to deny. In emulation of Cho Seung-Hui’s mass murder of 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech University in April, Auvinen created videos of himself pointing a gun menacingly before a camera and posted them on YouTube days before the attack; his YouTube account cited many American movies and bands as favorites. Like Cho, Auvinen left behind a rambling manifesto justifying his violence, written in English rather than Finnish. There is even evidence of an emotional link between Auvinen and Eric Harris, one of the shooters responsible for the Columbine High School massacre. Auvinen was a member of a Harris memorial Web site on which the Columbine shooters were honored like fallen soldiers.

However, if we are to look at the specifics of Auvinen’s case, it will quickly become apparent that he does not fit the archetype of an American school shooter, though he conforms to their basic message of hate. For instance, Cho Seung Hui’s writing expresses a clear sense of isolation from his peers, despite the fact that he lived in a dormitory. On the other hand, Auvinen reportedly had numerous friends and contacts in spite of his geographic isolation.

In his manifesto, Cho portrays himself as a martyr in a system that has “forced” him to enact a socially unacceptable act of violence; similarly, the Columbine shooters saw themselves as rejects and outsiders seeking justified revenge.

Auvinen dissimilarly envisioned himself as “chosen” and exalted above others; he was the one performing the act of rejection by initiating what he calls “a total war on humanity.” Auvinen claims in his manifesto that he feels justified in killing his classmates because they are “inferior, stupid, retarded, weak-minded masses.” It seems as if he extends this judgment to nearly everyone. “I can’t say I belong to (sic) same race as the lousy, miserable, arrogant, selfish human race! No! I have evolved one step above!” he asserts, identifying his classmates as Orwell’s insects rather than fellow people. With this vision, Auvinen feels justified in despising and destroying other human beings without consideration for their personhood. The nation he represents is inhumanity; the one he opposes includes all humane individuals. For this reason, his actions cannot be considered the product of any nationalistic identity other than his own twisted psychosis.

The terrorists responsible for Sept. 11 surely parallel Auvinen’s hateful judgment and supremacist ideology in their mutual lack of respect for human life. Due in part to their actions, we have allowed ourselves to be deluded and drawn into a calamitous Middle Eastern war along imaginary nationalistic lines. It would be impertinent to allow similar false borders to further impede our judgment in appointing guilt for this more recent tragedy, which should neither be Finland’s nor America’s alone to bear.