“Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” So said John Major. It is possibly the best ever summary of the right’s intentionally ignorant approach to criminal justice.

It is this burning desire not to get our heads round the actions of those we hate which ensures that they continue to hate us. It is the insistence that they are just one gross anomaly which prevents us from drawing trends and finding underlying causes. If we fail to see those who commit crimes as a product of the societies they live in, if we don’t even try to work out why crimes happen, we won’t ever address the root causes of crime.

If this is important for less serious crimes, then it is much more important with the most heinous acts. It is both easy and deeply tempting to rush to condemnation of those individuals who do the worst things imaginable. But the more we focus our public conversation on the evilness or the insanity of the perpetrator, the less we ask how we have created a society in which such crimes are possible. The more blame we allocate to the individual, the less we do to the system which produced them. And so the less we will do to change that system.

This week, the Norwegian courts and the global media focussed their attention on the mental health status of Andres Breivik. But Kamshajini Gunaratnam, one of the survivors of the Utøya massacre, was asking different questions. She spoke to Friday’s Today programme about the trial:

“We get the story behind Breivik’s past, what happened that day, why he became that way. I think that’s the most important thing for us who are trying to become politicians – that we want to create the society that won’t create another Breivik.

“We heard from his friends, and I think through their stories with him it is really important to see that this was a normal person that became that way. What I believe in is to create a society that will include everyone so that no one will become a lone wolf, like Breivik did”.

Some may disagree with her belief that criminals are the products of societies. Some may say that there is a portion of the human race which is just evil – that nothing can be done beyond building ever higher security barriers. But, as the sound of gunfire echoes round the United States again this week, these people must explain why some societies are much more prone to such events than others.

Why, in 2008, was someone in Lesotho 33 times more likely(.xls) to commit murder than someone in Tonga? The USA has an Intentional Homicide Rate seven times(.xls) higher than that of Norway. Are Americans just seven times more evil than Norwegians? Or should we, perhaps, begin to ask how to build societies which are less likely to produce such acts? We know, for example, that income inequality correlates to murder rates. I would guess that measures of social capital, alienation, and various other social factors also contribute.

And we have to ask another question too. Breivik was not just a mass murderer, and so we don’t just have to ask how to produce fewer mass murderers. He was a fascist mass murderer. And so we have to ask how to produce fewer fascists.

The left is usually good at asking questions about the social factors which turn people to criminal behaviours – particularly when those people are from marginalised groups: when young people in London trashed shops, we quite rightly talked about their alienation, and condemned the over-securitisation of their treatment. When cracking down on (largely imagined) Islamic terrorism was the hobby of most Western governments, we all learnt how to explain the social factors which helped to produce such terrorists (in so far as these people existed).

I am not sure we are so good at thinking about these things when the people in question are those we see as our enemies – those with power. How often do we see people doing what Kamshajini Gunaratnam did – asking which social factors make people into violent fascists? Yet as soon as we contribute to a narrative of individual blame – as soon as we condemn people for their violent fascism, surely we make it harder to do just that? Once everyone is told that a person is evil, that they are the enemy, do we not risk shutting down debate about the social causes of their beliefs and their crimes?

Of course, on the one hand, we are right to recognise the power difference: blaming those with more power than I do is always less of a problem for me than blaming those with less power than me. Likewise, I must accept that I am in a position of privilege – it is easy for me to ask abstract questions about hate criminals when their hatred is rarely aimed at me.

But the case that we must understand a little more and condemn a little less is about future prevention as much as it is about redemption. And so surely it is most important that we apply the principle to those crimes we see as most serious – to those we are quickest to condemn? We all have much to learn from Ms Gunaratnam and her brave friends at Utøya.

A tribute left after last year's massacre

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.