ONE OF US: THE STORY OF ANDERS BREIVIK AND THE MASSACRE IN NORWAY by Asne Seierstad

Anders Behring Breivik

(Anders Behring Breivik the right wing extremist convicted of killing 77 people and wounding 244 in Oslo and Vtoya, Norway on July 22, 2011)

On May 15, 2015 the jury in the Boston bombing case voted the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the massacre at the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon.  Tsarnaev acted out of an ideology that was the antithesis of Anders Behring Breivik, the self-proclaimed commander of the Norwegian anti-communist resistance movement who in July, 2011 sought to rid Europe of what he perceived to be its Islamization and, secondly to make a statement about what cultural diversity, and the feminist movement were doing to Norwegian society.  By blowing up the Norwegian Parliament building resulting in 8 deaths, and massacring 69 teenagers and wounding 244 more at a Labour Party youth gathering at its Vtoya camp retreat, Breivik hoped to rally Europe to his demented cause.

The use of hindsight as a lens to dissect human tragedy is very common.  Twenty-twenty hindsight exposes errors in judgement and outright mistakes.  What took place in Norway probably could have been avoided or at least the casualties could have been markedly reduced.  The warning signals seemed to be in plain sight and were overlooked, resulting in a disaster that could have been mitigated and was not in the case of Anders Breivik’s horrific actions on July 22, 2011 in Oslo and Vtoya.  The planning and execution of this atrocity and the life stories of the perpetrator and many of his victims have been extensively researched and chronicled in Asne Seierstad’s 2013 book, recently translated into English, ONE OF US: THE STORY OF ANDERS BREIVIK AND THE MASSACRE IN NORWAY. The book is a powerful story of how the development of hatred in one person can expose an entire society to his violent agenda.   Seierstad’s book begins with Breivik having already killed 22 people, coming upon 11 other teenagers, and how he proceeded to shoot them one by one.  Every few seconds a gun blast was heard, and as Breivik moved on to complete his task he said, “you will die today Marxists.”  Later, Breivik would explain that he wanted “to kill the party leadership of tomorrow.”*

Norway Terror

(The bomb blast at the Norwegian government building site on July 22, 2011)

There are a number of chapters in Seierstad’s narrative that stand out.  The discussion of Breivik’s upbringing and the dysfunctional nature of family life greatly contributed to his lack of self-confidence and loner lifestyle.  His mother, Wenche suffered from mental illness and abrupt mood swings, and when Anders was four she yelled at him that she “wished he were dead.”  As a little boy Anders tortured pet rats and little girls were afraid of him.  His inability to gain acceptance as a teenager, young adult, and adulthood was manifested in trying to make a reputation for himself as a “graffiti artist,” the inability to gain support for a position with the right wing Progress Party, the failure of his e commerce business, rejection for a city council seat nomination in his home town, and inability to become a Freemason all reflect a pattern of failure.  He spent a great deal of his time playing hardcore computer games like “World of Warcraft” and “Call to Duty: Modern Warfare,” in which his violent nature was refined.  The author integrates the political changes in Norway, the rise of the Labour Party and its left wing social agenda and how it provided a scapegoat for Breivik who develops a strong resentment for the number of “brown” refugees that are accepted by the Norwegian government.  As Breivik’s ideological views evolve he becomes convinced that the problem for Norway and Europe is the infiltration of Islam and his belief that what stood in the way of their deportation was in large part the Labour Party and its “feminist leadership” under former Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Seierstadt’s chapter “Patriots and Tyrants,” delineates Breivik’s ideas in a 1,518 page written manifesto, much the same way as did Hitler in Mein Kampf, and in retrospect it is a scary document.

Seierstadt’s chapters dealing with the families is both endearing and poignant.  The Rashid family emigrated from Iraq to escape the mounting sectarian violence after the American invasion.  Their story and how they tried to integrate into Norwegian society is important and sad as in the end their children found themselves in a situation that could only mirror their experiences in Kurdistan.  The Saebo family were native Norwegians whose children continued their parent’s liberal beliefs and their son Simon became a leader in the AUF movement (the youth wing of the Labour Party).  The family typifies the liberal sector of Norwegian society and how they worked with refugees and the poor.  Other personal biographies are presented and when the reader is confronted with the massacre on Vtoya Island they feel as if they know the victims of the terror.

Norway Terror

(The carnage at Vtoya Island, Norway on July 22, 2011)

What is most disturbing about the book is the discussion of what can only be described as police incompetence in many instances as the terror situation began to unfold.  The lack of equipment, poor communication, and overall weak preparation for a disaster of this kind probably substantially increased the death and wounded totals.  I realize it is easy to connect the dots after the fact, but in this case misplaced messages or ignoring important information are directly responsible for a great deal of what occurred after the Parliament building bombing.  The fact that only one helicopter was available at the time and the lack of water transport was appalling.  In reading the author’s description one wonders how safe Norwegian citizens were in 2011.  The Norwegian police response in the immediate aftermath of the Parliament building bombing looked as if the “keystone kops” were in control.  For those who were in charge of keeping Oslo safe, the events of July 22nd are scandalous, as a “2012 official investigation found that the police and security forces’ response during the attack was seriously flawed.”*

In addition to the personality portraits and defense strategies, Seierstadt provides a unique opportunity into the mind of Anders Beirik, especially in her discussion of his trial and sentencing.  Beirik believed in a three step plan, the bombing, the massacre at the island, and a trial that would serve as his platform for his ideas. He repeatedly stated that he expected to be caught, and tried to surrender a number of times during the massacre (another blot on police procedure) so he would not be killed, thus preserving his opportunity to educate the public about Islamization.  He achieved his goals as the Norwegian legal system worked to his advantage.  First, his message was broadcast nationwide.  Second, the court had to determine if he was sane or a political terrorist.  Third, no matter the verdict, he could only be sentenced to twenty one years in prison, and possibly more if he was still deemed a threat to society after his sentence was served.  Two teams of psychiatrists examined Beirik, one found him to be insane and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and the other found that he suffered from a “dissocial personality disorder with narcissistic traits….with a grandiose perception of his own importance…. possessing a vast appetite for praise, success and power….totally lacking in emotional apathy, remorse or affective expression.”  At trial he was deemed to be sane, something that Beirik desperately wanted so his “movement” would gain legitimacy in his own mind.

Norway Terror

(The arrival of Norwegian swat teams at Vtoya Island….too late)

The author’s exploration of Beirik’s motives, preparation, implementation, and post-massacre thought processes is reported to the last detail and provides insights into the most horrific domestic event in Norwegian history.  The book reads like a novel, but it is not.  The translation by Sarah Death is flawless, and after reading the narrative the reader will gain tremendous knowledge and insights into the events of July 22, 2011, and how most or at least part of what took place may have been avoided.

Norway Terror

(What hatred in one man’s mind can lead to)

*”Norway: Two Faces of Extremism” by Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books, March 5, 2015, 55-57.

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