This article was first published on July 18, 2015 and is republished here on the fifth anniversary of Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity:
Four years after Anders Behring Breivik slaughtered 77 people in Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity, the author Karl Ove Knausgaard looks for answers
Norway is a small country. It is also relatively homogeneous and egalitarian. This means that the distance from top to bottom is short, and that great disasters affect the entire populace. For example, every Norwegian knows someone who knows someone who died when the Alexander Kielland drilling rig capsized in 1980 – I recall that my brother had a schoolmate whose father died in the disaster – or when, a decade later, a ferry, the Scandinavian Star, burned and 158 of the passengers died. There is also something deeply sincere, almost innocent, about Norwegian culture. Practically every time something about Norway or one of its people appears in the foreign press, the Norwegian media mention this with pride.
And every May 17, National Constitution Day, people don their nicest clothes, whether these be bunads, suits or dresses, retrieve their flags and ribbons with Norwegian colours, and spill on to the streets to watch children sing songs about Norway, while everyone shouts hurrah and waves flags in a show of patriotism that encompasses every layer of society and plays out in every part of the country. The celebration takes place without irony and is essentially unpolitical – both the left and the right are united in this sea of flags and children. This says something about the country’s egotism, but also about its harmlessness.
It was out of this world that the 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik stepped when, on the afternoon of July 22 2011, he set out from his mother’s flat in Oslo’s West End, changed into a police uniform, parked a van containing a bomb, which he had spent the spring and summer making, outside Regjeringskvartalet – the heart of Norway’s government – lit the fuse, and left the scene. While the catastrophic images of the attack, which killed eight people, were being broadcast across the world, Breivik headed to Utøya.
#That was where the Workers’ Youth League had its annual summer camp. There Breivik shot and killed 69 people, in a massacre that lasted for more than an hour, right until the police arrived, when he immediately surrendered.
He wanted to save Norway. Just a few hours before detonating the bomb, Breivik emailed a 1,500-page manifesto to 1,000 recipients, in which he said that we were at war with Muslims and multiculturalism and that the slaughter of the campers was meant to be a wake-up call. He also uploaded to YouTube a 12-minute video that revealed, with propagandistic simplicity, what was about to happen in Europe: the Muslim invasion.
The shock in Norway was total. After the Second World War, the most serious political assault in the country had been the so-called Hadeland Murders, in 1981. Two young men, members of a small neo-Nazi underground movement, Norges Germanske Armé, were killed. Breivik’s crime was radically different. The television broadcasts of the scene were chaotic; the journalists and anchormen were just as affected by the events as the people they were interviewing; one read in their eyes and their body language incredulity, shock, confusion. The usual detachment with which news is delivered had collapsed. Indeed, at that moment it seemed as if the world stood open.
Like many Norwegians, I cried when I learnt what had happened, and in the days following. The assault penetrated every defence, for the deaths we were used to seeing in the media had always happened in other places, in foreign cities and countries, but this had happened in our own world, in the midst of things so well known and familiar that we couldn’t see it coming. It had happened at home.
Now it is almost impossible to believe. After the shock of the first few days, and the sorrow of the following weeks, the events of July 22 have shuttered themselves. The most striking aspect of the 10-week trial – which took place a year later, and at which we were given our first glimpse of Breivik, and his entire life and his every environment were documented and analysed – was how normalised both the perpetrator and the crime had become. It was as if the fact that he was a human being like us, who defended his point of view, subsumed the incomprehensible: suddenly, Breivik was the measure, not his crime.
One of Breivik’s victims called him ‘a jerk’ in the newspaper; numerous commentators described him as small, petty, pathetic. Some devoted themselves to finding the holes in his arguments; others described his missteps and his misconceptions. This reduction of the perpetrator, the act of making him seem less dangerous, is understandable, because a person in and of himself is small, but that does not mean we understand any more about how this act of terror was possible. On the contrary, in the wake of the trial, it is as if the two entities, the unimaginable crime and the man who committed it, were irreconcilable.
An initial court-ordered psychiatric review concluded that Breivik suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, but a second review diagnosed only ‘dissocial personality disorder’ and ‘narcissistic traits’. The court ruled that he was not psychotic.
What can prompt a relatively well-functioning man to do something so horrific in the midst of a stable, prosperous and orderly country? Is it possible to ever comprehend it?
Based on Breivik’s political rhetoric and his self-understanding, and also on his chosen targets – Regjeringskvartalet and the ruling party’s youth organisation – it is natural to compare his act with the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, where Timothy McVeigh, in an anti-government protest, parked a truck bomb outside a federal building and murdered 168 people. Indeed, Breivik took the Oklahoma City bombing as a model for the first part of his attack. However, almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and towards the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander’s uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organisation, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualised it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to ‘show’ us.
A few months before Breivik carried out the assault, he visited his former stepmother and told her that soon he was going to do something that would make his father proud. His mother had left his father when he was one, and it had been years since Breivik had spoken to him.
He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else.
Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.
Today, Breivik sits in a prison outside Oslo. He was given a 21-year term that can be extended indefinitely – Norway’s maximum sentence.Following the intense media scrutiny after the attack and during the trial, there is now almost complete silence around him. The last item concerning Breivik to surface in the news came earlier this year, when he conveyed his intention of suing the government over his prison conditions. This followed a long series of accusations about everything ranging from the fact that his game console hadn’t been properly upgraded from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3 to his having been issued an ergonomically incorrect rubber pen that caused hand cramps. ‘If it were theoretically possible to develop rheumatism, I am convinced that this rubber pen would be capable of causing it,’ he wrote. ‘It is a nightmare of an instrument and I am frustrated by its use.’ Because Breivik sees himself as an author, and wants to devote himself to this work in the coming decades, the writing tool is of the utmost importance. ‘The fact that I must, therefore, envision a future with nothing more than a dysfunctional rubber pen, appears, therefore, as an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism.’
Knowing what he did that summer day four years ago, when he walked around an island full of youths and shot everyone he saw, many face to face – indeed, when the court reviewed the autopsy reports, we learnt of a girl whose lips remained unscathed, though she was shot in the mouth, because Breivik shot her at close range while she presumably screamed for help or for mercy – and knowing the consequences that his actions have had for the affected families, for us his list of complaints is, in its triviality, almost unbearable to read. It is as if Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil had, in Breivik’s case, received an additional twist. Adolf Eichmann, the man whom Arendt wrote about, belonged to an organisation and a bureaucracy and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast, from the very first moment Breivik was utterly alone, and his smallness and wretchedness, which were, in a way, grotesquely inflated by his actions, make it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have termed ‘the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War’.
And it is not, as one might think, Breivik’s isolation in prison that has brought out this side of him. In the best and most comprehensive book to date on the Utøya massacre, Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us, the author describes what occurred in the hours following Breivik’s arrest. While corpses were lying around the island in pools of blood, and many of the wounded had yet to be transported to shore, Breivik was interrogated in the camp’s wooden headquarters. For the police, the situation was unclear, and the essential thing was to find out whether Breivik had acted alone, or if there were more terrorists. For his part, Breivik was concerned that he might die of dehydration, since he had taken a combination of ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin earlier that day. He was given a soft drink before questioning began. Moments later, his concern shifted to a cut on his finger. Seierstad writes:
‘Look, I’m hurt,’ he said. ‘This will have to be bandaged up. I’ve already lost a lot of blood.’
‘You’ll get no f***ing plasters from me,’ muttered the policeman who was taking messages between the interview room and the room next door, where they were in contact with the staff in Oslo.
‘I can’t afford to lose too much blood,’ Breivik said. ‘And I’ve lost half a litre already.’ He claimed that the blood loss could make him pass out. Sticking plasters were procured.
While the plasters were being applied, Breivik wondered why he was bleeding. He remembered hitting his finger when he shot a victim in the head at close range. Something had flown into his finger and then popped out again. It must have been a bit of skull, he told the officers in the room.
The cut was logged as 5mm long. The interrogation could continue.”
Breivik’s concern for the tiny cut on his finger, which occurs only minutes after he has taken the last of 77 lives, and the remarkable insensitivity to which this testifies, could perhaps be attributed to the fact that he was high on stimulants, as well as intoxicated by the murders themselves, and so had been placed in a state of unreality – were it not for the fact that, years later, there is no sign that he has changed.
He is a person filled to the brim with himself. And that is perhaps the most painful thing of all, the realisation that this whole gruesome massacre, all those extinguished lives, was the result of a frustrated young man’s need for self-representation.
As that initial interrogation was winding to a close, Breivik was asked to undress. Seierstad describes it thus:
Finally, he was standing there in a room of uniformed men in his underpants. He started posing, trying to look macho. Now he was all for having his picture taken. He looked into the camera and thrust out his chest. His hands were clasped at one hip while he held his body taut in a classic bodybuilding pose, to make his muscles bulge as much as possible.
For a moment, the policemen were nonplussed. In another setting, another crime, it might have been ridiculous, but here… it was grotesque, it was simply incomprehensible. Who on earth were they dealing with?”
In many ways, I find it repellent to write about Anders Behring Breivik. Every time his name appears in public, he gets what he wants, and becomes who he wants, while those whom he murdered, at whose expense he asserted himself, lost not only their lives but also their names – we remember his name, but they have become numbers. And yet we must write about him, we must think about the crisis that Breivik’s actions represent. I was in contact with Åsne Seierstad when she began work on the book, I read an early version of the first chapters, and we discussed them – Norway, as I said, is a small country, we are both authors and members of the same generation, and by that point I had written two essays on Breivik and the Utøya massacre. What Seierstad underscores in the title, One of Us, is that the victims, the perpetrator and the author all belong to the same culture. And that is, perhaps, the book’s most important point: the victims and the perpetrator are granted equal footing, so that the book becomes a history of the country in which both they and we grew up.
I believe this perspective is essential. I do not believe that Breivik himself has anything to teach us. I believe that his life is a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances, and what he did was such an anomaly that it makes no sense even to guard ourselves against it. We know that he grew up with a father who was not there for him, and with a mother who, without being aware of it, neglected him in ways that destroyed him so completely that, really, he had no chance. Part of his mother’s character was the inability to perceive herself in relation to others, even her own children. She had been abused as a child, and her narcissistic traits were reflected in her son. None the less, the world is full of difficult childhoods – some people succumb, while others prevail, but no one murders 69 people, one after another, single-handedly. The world is also full of people with narcissistic tendencies – I am one of them – and it is full of people who cannot empathise with others. And the world is full, too, of people who share Breivik’s extreme political ideas but who do not consider them grounds to murder children and young people. Breivik’s childhood explains nothing, his character explains nothing, his political ideas explain nothing.
Until his moment of decision, Breivik appears to have been an ordinary person, the kind you might meet anywhere. He had a difficult upbringing, to be sure, but that is more common than one might think; he had yet to find his place in life, he was not who he wanted to be, but that is also a relatively common experience. His great inner conflicts were something that he kept secret, even from himself. It was only when he carried out a terrorist attack that he stood out. When I read about him, I can follow him up to that point, my empathy stretches that far, but it goes no further.
What does it take to kill another person? Or, to put it another way, what is it that prevents us from killing? In the book Bagdad Indigo, about the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, my friend Geir Angell Øygarden asks what can impel one person to kill another. It is one of the most difficult things you can bring someone to do. Even after people have been issued uniforms, weapons and permission to take the enemy’s life, they will balk. Releasing bombs over a populated area is one thing, but killing those same people at close range, face to face, is another. What makes the difference? It is the face, the eyes, their light.
After the Second World War, the US military leadership became concerned that many soldiers were not shooting to kill, and it adopted new training methods. If soldiers merely trained with numbered bull’s-eyes, encountering real faces on the battlefield might prove too harrowing. Instead, they train with masked targets that appear human, but are not. This dehumanisation process is what is at work on the battlefield; soldiers see masks, images, not people. One of the American soldiers Øygarden interviewed in Iraq put it like this: ‘My enemy doesn’t have a face. He doesn’t have a face. He has, I guess, what you would call a target on him. That’s what I go for. I don’t see a human being. I can’t see a human being.’
In other words, society has protective systems in place that should make Breivik’s actions, and the actions of those who mow down their fellow students, impossible. I am not thinking of child-protection services or of schools or of any civic authority, not even the police; rather, I am thinking of the bonds among people, the presence of the other in ourselves, and the responsiveness around which every community and culture is built, which reveals itself in the commandment we see in the faces of others: do not kill.
Murder is against human nature, but in extreme cases this can be overcome if the community to which one belongs enjoins or encourages it. The events that are now occurring in Iraq and Syria, the brutal murders committed by Islamic State, cannot be ascribed to people having suddenly become evil but, rather, to the disintegration of the mechanisms that in a civilized society typically prevent people from engaging in rape and murder. A culture of war and murder has arisen. It happened in Rwanda and in the Balkans. It is one of the possibilities human beings contain within themselves. However, it is so distant from what most of us experience that we cannot begin to identify with it. They burn prisoners in cages. The ruthlessness and the indifference to life that these actions suggest are unfathomable.
Breivik’s deed, single-handedly killing 77 people, most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye, did not take place in a wartime society, where all norms and rules were lifted and all institutions dissolved; it occurred in a small, harmonious, well-functioning and prosperous land during peacetime. All norms and rules were annulled in him, a war culture had arisen in him, and he was completely indifferent to human life, and absolutely ruthless.
That is where we should direct our attention, to the collapse within the human being which these actions represent, and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.
The most powerful human forces are found in the meeting of the face and the gaze. Only there do we exist for one another. In the gaze of the other we become, and in our own gaze others become. It is there, too, that we can be destroyed. Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing.
Breivik remained unseen, and it destroyed him. He then looked down, and he hid his gaze and his face, thereby destroying the other inside him. Five years before the massacre, Breivik isolated himself in a room at his mother’s flat; he saw practically no one, refused visits, hardly ever went out, and just sat inside playing computer games, World of Warcraft mostly, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. At some point, this fantasy took over Breivik’s reality, not because he experienced a psychotic break but because he discovered models of reality that were as uncomplicated and manageable as those of the game, and so, incited by the power of his fantasies, especially by what they enabled him to become – a knight, a commander, a hero – he decided to bring them to life. He had been a nobody – that is to say, dead – and suddenly he arose on the other side, no longer nobody, because, by virtue of undertaking the inconceivable, which was now conceivable, he would become somebody.
And he had no one there to correct him – his eyes were cast down.
In a remarkable moment during the trial, Breivik described how he had stood before a group of young people, who were lined up against a cabin wall, preparing to shoot them. He thought it very strange that they did not move, did not run, but just stood there, since he had never seen people behave that way in any movie. Indeed, he moved about the island as if he were in a film or a game, but the deaths he caused did not occur on some other plane, separated from his physical time and place; everything was real, concrete, absolute. Every shot struck flesh, every eye that dimmed was real. With his capacity for displacement, his capacity for reshaping the outer world in his own image, he narrated his deeds without expression to the courtroom, and he listened to the survivors’ accounts without expression, even though everyone else, the judges as well as the journalists and the next of kin, sat and cried. His victims still remain images to him. He knows what he did, but he has no conception of the devastation. Only an individual self can feel for another, and Breivik no longer possesses that self; it is dead. His identity, carefully constructed, replete with a new body, a new psyche, desensitised and ruthless, is a soldier’s identity, a hero’s identity, and that conflicts with everything that he was; indeed, combats it. It is as if he had personified an image and transformed it into something seemingly absolute, into flesh and blood, but the actual absolute, the young peoples’ bodies, he has converted to images, pixels, digits.
Everything in Anders Behring Breivik’s history up until the horrific deed can be more or less found in every life story; he was and is one of us. The fact that he did what he did, and that other young men, misfits, have shot scores of people, implies that the necessary distance from the other is attainable in our culture, probably more so now than it was a couple of generations ago. Still, we all inhabit this culture, we all move between fiction and reality, between image and material, and the distance to the other is no straightforward quantity, and neither is the act of averting one’s gaze. In order to see the culture, one must stand outside it; in order to see the individual, one must stand outside him. This is the duality that characterisesOne of Us, especially when Seierstad writes about the murders on the island. The result is that ‘Utøya’ and ‘July 22’ assume new meaning for me when I read the book. Once again, that day becomes something concrete, not a phenomenon, not an affair, not an argument in a political discussion but a dead body bent over a stone at the water’s edge. And, once again, I cry. Because that body has a name, he was a boy, he was called Simon. He had two parents and a little brother. They will mourn him for the rest of their lives.
Translated from the Norwegian by Kerri Pierce. © 2015 by Karl Ove Knausgaard