Book Review: Go inside the mind of Norway’s terrorist
Thor A. Larsen
Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist and writer whose credentials include books on Afghanistan (The Book Seller of Kabul) as well as books on life in Iraq and Chechnya during brutal conflicts, turned her attention to the most brutal event in Norway since World War II, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of 77 people in Oslo and Utøya Island in the year 2011. The book was riveting to read!
Seierstad provides a comprehensive and captivating work, based on extraordinary research, interviews of a broad range of people who were part of Breivik’s life or affected directly or indirectly by his actions, as well as police and government officials. One aspect of the book that I found especially meaningful was to describe the personalities of some of the victims: bright, young, and very committed to the Labor Party youth movement. We learned about their lives before the tragedy, how they died, and the pain their parents suffered afterwards.
The story is vivid in describing Breivik from a small child to a 32-year-old terrorist with no empathy after he had completed his brutal crimes. Among the stresses he endured growing up were the total rejection of his father and a “warped” relationship with his mother. The reader quickly becomes immersed in Breivik’s life as he grows up, seeing what his personality was and what it evolved into after a series of personal setbacks. Seierstad is able to bring the reader into the mind of this deranged human clearly and without any bias.
In Breivik’s late teens and early 20s he developed interest in politics, with a strong attraction to the Progressive party, a very conservative party, and strong negative views against the philosophies of the left-leaning Labor Party. In fact, he was strongly against immigration, Muslims, and feminism. He tried to become a leader, but failed. After a period of several failures to be accepted, a final rejection by his estranged father drove Breivik into isolation. He moved back to and remained in his mother’s house for several years, never going out, disconnected from all, living within the make-believe world of video games. As he once said to an interviewer, the worst he felt was that he was not loved. His mother provided a home for her adult son, but what she could give was limited due to her paranoid schizophrenic mental issue.
Although Breivik did have psychological issues during his childhood and adulthood, he was intelligent and an avid learner. As his direction started to become more bizarre, he started to write a manifesto on his beliefs, utilizing internet sources of anti-Muslim, anti-feminist materials to make his case. It is clear that he had online sympathizers in Norway. Breivik’s next step was to plan action in his fight against the liberal directions of the Labor Party.
In preparing for this “fight,” Breivik was quite capable in finding a farm to live at where he taught himself to build bombs using fertilizer and acquired other explosives and guns to use in his attack. He planned his bombing meticulously and succeeded due to lax security. Breivik, dressed as a policeman, calmly drove to the banks of the lake where the island of Utøya was located. He took a small boat to the island with others, claiming he’d been sent there for additional security. As he landed on the island, he remained calm, opened the satchel containing his rifle, and began shooting. He kept shooting for about an hour, unaffected by the screams of victims as he walked around the island.
The police were incredibly inept in putting together a response force when phone messages came from the students on the island, screaming about a shooter on the island. Sadly, it took the killing of 69 young people before Breivik called the police to indicate that he wanted to surrender.
Seiersted provides a detailed accounting of the trial, during which the main issue was whether Breivik was considered sane or not. The author provides a sensitive description of the suffering of several victims’ family members during and after the trial.
As you read this outstanding “historical novel” of Norway’s tragedy, you must endure the emotional pain of learning in graphic detail how some of the young people died. You also become very angry at the incompetence of security personnel in Oslo and the local police’s “inability to communicate” and take action while many additional lives are lost. But on the other hand, there are many aspects of this story that restore your faith in the Norwegian spirit. There were several young heroes who gave their lives to save others. One can also take comfort in the nation, led by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, as there were no violent responses to this horrific act.
One of Us not only explores Breivik’s path to violence but also provides an effective window on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in Norway. At the same time, we learn of very well-integrated Muslims who love Norway and its way of life. We learn a great deal about the Progressive Party and the Labor Party, especially about the very committed young people of the Labor Party. Also, we are provided an effective view on Norway’s legal system and punishment.
This book is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand modern Norway, events leading up to its July 22, 2011, tragedy, and its aftermath.
One of Us was translated from the Norwegian En av oss by Sarah Death and was released in hardcover in the U.S. last year. The paperback version is due out on April 12, 2016.
Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.