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One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
├ůsne Seierstad
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
544 pp., 28.00

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Sarah Ruden


Mass Murder and Mad Logic of Entitlement

On Anders Breivik.

At least since the time when humankind could leave no record but stone weapons and its own bones, we have committed massacres. But from the advent of written records until very recently, we've always shown our motives for killing many fellow members of our species within a short interval, when immediate self-preservation isn't at issue.

Greed, lust, hard-nosed political calculation, sheer competitiveness or fun, wounded pride, revenge, even loyal protectiveness all contribute to the massacres depicted in Gilgamesh and the Iliad. The Old Testament prefers religious justifications. "Don't let a single one escape," says Elijah, sending his followers to wipe out the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:40).

In case epic mythology and the Bible seem less than ideal as historical evidence, Caesar in his accounts of his generalship argues that massacring the thoroughly subdued can be a matter of responsible, rational strategy. His readers may well have concurred, knowing that each captive killed was lost to the lucrative slave market; it was, so to speak, a personal sacrifice on the leader's part.

The age of modern religious wars has provided a lamentable array of logic applied to slaughter. Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Citeaux, probably didn't declare, "Kill them all: God will know his own," but the crusading army did certainly kill several thousand helpless inhabitants of Béziers, conforming Catholics and heretic Cathars alike.

The modern Western lone gunman is quite different. He is pumped up on a pattern of thought that, if it does claim a communal fabric, claims one that's only out there somewhere, either fantasizing emptily or fighting for real power; this community may know him slightly, or may in fact have rejected him. Only the most extreme terrorists are cynical enough to encourage him on their behalf, and they keep at a distance. He ends up forfeiting his life or his freedom for people who consider him a throw-away tool, subhuman like his victims.

The Internet, that hundred-and-fifty-dollar Swiss Army knife full of gadgets for self-creation, assists a young man in customizing his personal cause from an array of clichés; but at some point the cause becomes a compulsion to rampage. More technology supports the compulsion: he can take a life every second if he is well-enough prepared. All the connection and practicality the mind loves can be diverted from the why of the project to the how.

Perhaps most disturbing of all—and most productive of questions about where we're going with this society—the rampaging shooter doesn't come from among the forgotten outcasts or the exploited underclass, the people we can readily imagine plotting to take things out on the rest of us. They're occupied with survival, with enjoying whatever they can, or with improving their lives.

The young man striding into a school or a church with a semi-automatic weapon has had leisure, money, nurturance, and support to use in preparing for this moment. He's had plenty of opportunities in life; maybe too many, as he's decided that his worldly fulfillment—it goes without saying that he does not place his hopes in another realm—is limited not by nature (so that it would be limited in any possible social order, or outside of any) but by other people's existence: there must be intent and agency that deprives him, because such deprivation is not merely in the order of the universe. It is an outside, demonic force he must eliminate, stepping outside himself to do so.

One of the most baffling and horrifying massacres of recent years took place in Norway. Anders Breivik had flopped, dropped out, or been rebuffed as a graffiti artist, right-wing politician, entrepreneur (peddling fake university degrees), Freemason, and online gamer. By the age of 32, he had spent many months, full-time, working out a way to go down in history for sure.

On July 22, 2011, he set off a bomb in the national government center in Oslo, killing eight. Making his way to the nearby island of Utøya, where the Workers' Youth League (the junior branch of the then-ruling Labour Party) was holding its annual summer camp, he gunned down 69 people, most of them teenagers. He claims to have done it as a means of publicizing his manifesto. This is lengthy, in large part plagiarized, and combines Islamophobia, antifeminism, both historical and futuristic fantasy, and neo-Nazi, pro-Nordic, and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Åsne Seierstad is a highly regarded Norwegian war correspondent. Her account of the massacre in her homeland (published in Norway in 2013 and only now available in English) reaches back to before the birth of the gunman's mother and out beyond him into a couple of his victims' quite different backgrounds (Norwegian far-north provincial, Kurdish immigrant), as well as into his crimes' preparation down to the fiddling chemical details, the crimes themselves, and the trial and incarceration.

Seierstad is not heavy-handed in her analysis of her work's results, despite what must have been galling provocation. Norway is by all accounts a stunningly successful country. The Nazis in their WWII occupation expected enthusiasm from this land full of tall blondes; but Vidkun Quisling, the collaborationist leader, had in fact fallen out of popular favor as early as 1935. The reaction against fascism was on the whole strong and enduring.

Calvinist conscientiousness in family and community life and governance, posh social services, a pristine physical environment, a giant sovereign wealth fund from North Sea oil, high status for women, great consideration shown toward children and the elderly, a very low level of violence—Norway seems outrageously blessed. Even with an immigrant population of over 15 percent, the country of five million is hardly crowded.

Slight overall rises in social tensions, crime, and unemployment attributable to immigration would be barely noticeable elsewhere, but can be a sharp irritant in Norway because of the high expectations of both natives and foreigners. A girlfriend of Breivik's, Asian in origin and dark-complected, complained about Muslim men mistaking her for Muslim and yelling at her to get dressed—in a veil, that is. This was among Breivik's (few) personal pretexts for political reaction. Simon Saebo, one of Breivik's victims, spent considerable time befriending young, isolated immigrant men who were struggling to assimilate, but he doesn't seem to have been able to persuade them not to pinch Norwegian girls' bottoms with a view to starting relationships.

Unhappy interactions like this show more vividly against the background of a happy country, sometimes causing backlash. But an overseas journalist like Seierstad has the big picture, and to her, Breivik's shattering of the national ethos of forbearance and kindness may have hit harder than on average among the citizenry: she had, after all, seen people muddle along good-heartedly in conditions a thousand times worse than anywhere in Norway. But she works hard at balance and compassion, offering an account with great potential to help us better understand evil in modern life.

For me, it emerges from that account that certain kinds of rapid social change encourage the reasoning, "Now that we're letting people arrange their lives as they like, we don't need to be concerned about each other in the burdensome, embarrassing ways of the past." An extended family or a patriarchal government would have intervened in a hurry as it became clear that Wenche Breivik was both sadistic toward her son and toying with him incestuously. She behaved this way in the mental-health clinic where he was a long-term outpatient, and she actually asked the couple with whom he was staying on "respite care" weekends to molest him. The social, medical, and legal systems deferred to her autonomy as a single mother, and she kept custody; nor were she or her son monitored in the longer term.

Breivik was a trouble-maker as a child, and this included hurting animals, but no one in his neighborhood made a serious attempt to stop him, rather just dodging him and discretely looking out for their own. I myself can testify that a child's openly cruel act asks the question, "Is there justice and mercy hereabouts?" "Well, right here there is" tends to be a good enough answer, as it certifies, "There can be, elsewhere, and if not in this world, then in another." It takes a decadent, artificial avoidance of judgment and confrontation not to speak up with this answer.

In his graffiti period, Breivik was caught and fined several times, but the punishment was not enough to make an impression. His business in fake diplomas never came close to a prosecution. He was an efficient, valued employee for a brief time, but no one around him put a foot down during the long years he didn't have a job but played World of Warcraft and then prepared his manifesto and his arsenal, intermittently recommending his vile views to a number of old acquaintances.

The material inputs, such as fertilizer and detonator switches, were suspicious, and some were shipped from overseas; no one challenged him or snooped as he accumulated the bulky supply and stored it in the shared basement of his mother's apartment building, and then on a farm he acquired, where he pursued the lengthy, dirty, noisy, smelly work of bomb-making. He needed permits for the crops he was claiming to grow, but no one followed up on whether the farm, as such, existed. Everywhere and always, he enjoyed the benefit of the doubt.

Seierstad's narrative of his last hours of freedom follows this circumstance in the direction of black comedy. Breivik, in a phony police uniform, had no trouble parking a private van next to government buildings, off-loading his bomb, and lighting the fuse. An alert citizen saw him leaving and relayed to the police a description of him, his vehicle (including the license plate number), and his route of departure, but the note lay unnoticed on a desk during the state of alert after the bombing, while Breivik made his way to an obvious follow-up target: the island full of young ruling-party activists, where a former prime minister was billed as a visitor (but in fact departed before his arrival).

Ferry service had been suspended in the emergency, but the lone cop-impersonator, visibly armed, was able to summon the ferry by alleging that he'd been sent to secure the island. Island personnel (tasked with searching every teenager's bag for drugs and alcohol) helped him haul his heavy case of munitions aboard, unopened, and then trucked it to the island's headquarters for him.

While Breivik methodically hunted down his victims, and shots could be heard on the mainland, and panicked cell phone calls came through from scattering, hiding young people, the police could have immediately commandeered boats and deployed in force. Instead, they mustered at a golf course miles away. One stood alone at the nearest launching place, listening to the slaughter and doing nothing. A strike force in full gear finally piled into a dinghy, so that it swamped on the way to the island; they required rescue themselves.

Running out of steam and ringing the police a second time, Breivik could not extract instructions for giving himself up. Waiting for a call back (the policeman didn't have his number), he continued shooting, half-heartedly now, at people swimming away and a boat rescuing them. Confronting him at long last, Delta officers couldn't decide how to immobilize or disarm him. ("Make up your minds, kneeling or lying?" responded Breivik.)

The story of the legal process is the greatest lure toward the opinion that, in this society, Breivik behaved the way he did because no one ever got in his way. He was allowed to shape the trial to the extent that it began with a lengthy political disquisition by him. Officials suffered him, again and again, to delay or detour proceedings on the grounds that they were demeaning to him or against his larger purposes. For months, he pursued these freely online, cultivating a following like a celebrity and advocating violence with every sentence he used to justify his own.

Hitler comes to mind, holding court in prison after his failed putsch, pampered by fawning guards. It wasn't that Norwegian functionaries, like them, were politically sympathetic; but they lacked intellectual courage. This man's treatment as what he was—a self-confessed, unrepentant mass-murder arisen "without warning" from the heart of their society—required a painful readjustment of their worldview. Rather than make that readjustment, they went on treating him more loosely than they would have treated a burglar or smuggler of cigarettes. They treated him as if he really wasn't, couldn't be what he was.

This was most infuriating in Breivik's mental-health assessment, where he managed to exercise the most control. His mother obliged him by checking herself into a psychiatric clinic (though she seemed never to have lacked memory or lucidity) and begged off testifying. The ugly assessments from Breivik's childhood were not in public evidence. Breivik's counsel railed against "stigmatizing" labels and demanded respect for what Seierstad terms "the legal boundaries of personal privacy." (I asked my husband, a criminal defense attorney, what he thought of this as a strategy, and he thought I was pulling his leg.)

Granted, Breivik's moral confusion must have hindered the assessment, but this wasn't due to any organic disease, accident, or other act of God; it could probably be attributed to a set of circumstances that psychiatrists themselves were now furthering. All his conscious life, since he sat outdoors on the steps, declaring doom on ants and smashing them, Breivik had been loudly projecting a world packed with his own power and authority. The response had been scared or annoyed retreat, feeble protest, or polite deference. The consequences had amounted to less friction against him, not more.

Did he think his world was real? Why wouldn't he? "In the psychiatry they represented, there was no category for moral deliberation," reports Seierstad of doctors assigned to find him insane or not, and accordingly responsible for the killings or not. Their narrowness of framework, their passivity, their failure to draw on cultural resources of the past or to worry about the future sounded familiar at this point in the book.

Breivik got the ruling of sanity he wanted as a political justification. Since the maximum sentence for terrorism—which he received—is twenty-one years (with the possibility of an extension in the interest of public safety), a minimum of ten to be served, it is not inconceivable that he will manipulate himself free while still in the prime of life. Meanwhile, though deprived of the Internet, he still spends a rigorous working day in censored correspondence, mostly with admirers. The mask of serious, professional leadership is still on.

Seierstad largely takes the side of the ordinary public in its revulsion. With respect and admiration, but without sentimentality, she depicts two families of victims in their everyday decency, love, agony, and incomprehension. The star of the book is not so much the Norwegian Simon Saebo—though a fine kid, he was favored by birth. The star is Bano Rashid, who came to Norway in early childhood as a refugee and negotiated a new life for herself with gusto and good humor. Her little sister, who survived the massacre, gave a victim's statement at the end of the trial: Bano had died for multiculturalism, not for nothing.

Speaking of nothing, I hear an echo of theological plausibility in Seierstad's treatment of Breivik (though she wouldn't have intended this: she hints at no religious beliefs). Covering all the data the court didn't, she depicts him as the ultimate loser. Because of his dizzying lack of insight and connectedness, he fights, using his superficial energy and competence, for control of every situation, but he can't achieve anything in the long run. He's got nothing inside for that.

Goodness, insists Augustine, is what exists, most plainly in creation: in the material world, in life, in productive activities, in the human relationships for which we're designed. Goodness is natural and inviting. We have available at every moment the choice to turn toward the good, and away from the twisted, strained reach toward—nothingness. Evil is simply the absence of good. It is not a thing, let alone a person. We shouldn't be facing nothingness with terror or theoretizing or hocus-pocus, and certainly not with timid accommodation. We should face it with cheerful contempt and unabashed opposition, putting reality into that empty space. And we shouldn't bend ourselves out of shape about knowing it when it's next door—because we do know.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Harp, the Voice, the Book: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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