One of Us: a chilling look at a massacre made in Norway

One of UsNordic noir has become all the rage in the last few years. But nothing from authors such as Mankell, Nesbo and Larsson or TV series like The Killing, The Bridge, or Mammon can compare to what happened in Norway less then four your years ago. I am referring to the case of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people on a tragic summer day in Oslo. I have just finished reading an account of these barbaric acts, One of Us by Asne Seierstad. The book actually came out in 2013, but it has just been translated into English, in an example of nominative determinism, by Sarah Death.

The Norwegian journalist, who specialises in accounts from war zones, is perhaps most famous for The Bookseller of Kabul. In this work she tells the story a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rays (whose name she changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Using a novelistic approach, she describes the character and the daily issues that they face. It was a fantastic read. But it was also controversial in that it did rather invade the privacy of Rais. The bookseller felt things revealed about him in Seierstad’s book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan. Another criticism is that she could not speak Pashto and this would have made it difficult for her to follow what was going on.

One of Us may prove controversial too, but once again it’s a magnificent read. Although she does a fantastic job of bringing the victims alive, the principal focus of the book is inevitably the life of Anders Breivik. He did not have a deprived childhood. Indeed, his father was a diplomat. But he was not a wanted child. His father abandoned him as a child and his mother, a depressive who grew up in a violent and unloving home, was simply unable to cope with parenthood.

We read about his schooldays and his time as a graffiti artist. His academic record was undistinguished, but he had some successful business ventures, including one selling bogus diplomas online. He couldn’t deal with Norway’s liberated women and instead contacted a mail-order bride who arrived from Belarus. She quickly fled back home. He was deemed unfit to do his military service and he made an unsuccessful attempt to join the Freemasons. Then his businesses went belly-up and Breivik was back at home his mother. It was here that he got hooked to World of Warcraft, which he would often play for 18 hours a day.

At this time that he also found his far-right ideology. He spent some time in the right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party, but he was unable to climb up the greasy pole. Instead, he created a deadly persona – the Knight Templar Commander of the anti-communist resistance movement against the Islamisation of Europe and Norway. He set out his views in his magnum opus, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence written with his English pseudonym Andrew Berwick. In reality it was a 1,518-page manifesto that had been cut and pasted from the anti-immigrant and racist sites. His influences included the English Defence League, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a fellow Norwegian known as Fjordman. The year 2083 was an allusion to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 in which the Ottoman invaders were repelled at the gates of the city.

Seierstad spends a lot of time describing Breivik’s incredibly meticulous preparations. We learn how he rented an isolated farm and began to assemble his bomb and collect his armaments. It reads like a dark episode of Breaking Bad”

At the heart of the book are the 70 pages where she describes what happened on Friday July 22 2011. First he detonated a homemade bomb in central Oslo, outside the prime minister’s office, killing eight. He then set off to a Young Socialists’ camp on the wooded island of Utøya. There, over the course of more than an hour, he systemically gunned down everyone he could. Most of his victims were teenage members of the governing Labour Party, future leaders of the country. Breivik methodically shot 11 children playing dead. Here is a part of Seierstad’s description of the killing:

Breivik went into the building. The walls were covered with posters of AUF [the Young Socialists’ organisation] slogans from over the years. In the corridor there were hundreds of shoes and boots, as no outdoor footwear was allowed in the meeting rooms.

He went calmly into the first room, known as the small hall. He paused for a moment in the doorway to get an overview. The youngsters looked at him, awaiting instructions.

He went over to a group and started shooting.

Several fell to the floor.

Ha, they’re faking it, ran through his head. He calmly went round to each of them in turn and ended their lives with a shot to the head.

Some of the youngsters were screaming, standing still as if glued to the floor. They stared at him fixedly, unable to run away, escape, save themselves.

How weird that they’re just standing there, thought Breivik. I’ve never seen that in a movie.

Then he aimed his pistol at them.

Some of them begged for their lives. ‘Please don’t shoot!’

But he always did.

He shot one girl in mid-scream. His pistol was almost touching her face. He fired into her open mouth. Her skull shattered, but her lips remained unharmed.

_____

 By the time he gave himself up to Norwegian special forces, he had killed 69 people, the vast majority of whom were teenagers; his youngest victim had just turned fourteen.

Breivik may or may not be a madman. The court psychiatrists in Oslo differed on this. In the end it was decided that he was not. I tend to agree with this diagnosis. Just because someone has sick ideas, does not make him a madman. But it is true that the criteria for what criminal insanity are rather confused. In fact, it is not a medical question but a legal one. I will have to do a post about this another day.

What did surprise me was the sheer ineptitude of the Norwegian authorities. I do realise that Norway is a country with a very low crime rate, but that cannot excuse all the mistakes that were made. As well as gross incompetence, there seems to have been weak leadership, an inadequate allocation of resources, and ultimately an absurd level of risk aversion on the part of the Norwegian government and police. It was a litany of failure. Here is a brief sample:

  1. The police received tip-off with a description of Breivik and his vehicle registration number just eight minutes after the bomb went off. It was put on a post-it note, but this was ignored.
  2. They had no operational helicopters. The police forces in Norway only operate a single helicopter, and it was not available in July. In the UK the police forces have 39.
  3. The rescue team loaded the entire unit onto a small boat on the lake to get to Utøya Island By trying to take everyone at once they nearly ended up sinking the boat.  It would have been more logical to transport three or four team members at a time.
  4. There are even accusations that the police had waited until Breivik had finished his killing spree before moving in to arrest him.

In August 2012 Anders Behring Breivik was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism. He was finally sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum sentence. But this is renewable. There is always the danger with this type of book that you give the terrorist the oxygen of publicity.  Now locked up, Breivik is continually complaining that the conditions he has to live under are torture. One list of 12 demands to prison authorities included easier communication with the outside world and a PlayStation 3 to replace the PlayStation 2 in his cell, because the PlayStation 3 offered more suitable games.

However, in the end, it’s the victims and their families that Seierstad cares about; two of the victims she focuses on are Simon Sæbø and Bano Rashid. Simon, a highly political young Norwegian, had ambitions to climb the ranks of the Labour Party. Bano, the daughter of Kurdish refugees, was desperate to assimilate and succeed as a Norwegian. The reader comes to know their families and their lives, you feel close to them, but you know that their lives will inevitably be cut short. Seierstad interviewed the parents and friends of Breivik’s victims, and the survivors who witnessed the horrors of that day on the island. It was a chastening experience:

To meet the parents, to feel their pain, they were not much older than me. I spent so much time with them, it was quite an experience. I learnt a lot through it. I learnt about sorrow.”

Breivik seemed only to want for the world to know his name. He certainly achieved this. Fortunately he ended up strengthening the resolve of the people he sought to terrorise. There is much in his profile that echoes the jihadi killers. Indeed, he told his police interrogators that he was actually inspired by the fighting spirit of al-Qaida. There are also parallels with Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine high school killers.

When you read this type of book, you find that there are no easy answers. The one of us in the title of the book could refer to any of the victims, but also to the killer. This event was particularly shocking in Norway, a country which averages less than 50 murders a year. Norwegians feel proud of this and the restrained reaction after the massacre. I will close with a quote by Henning Mankell, the author behind Wallender in an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian just three days after the events:

It may be impossible to completely defend oneself and one’s country against these actions, but we must try. We must defend the open society, because if we start locking our doors, if we let fear decide, the person who committed the act of terror will win. He will have injected fear into our community. As Franklin D Roosevelt put it: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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