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Saturday, March 18, 2017

One of Us

"Higher up the cliff, the three girls Breivik shot first. Dead. One had celebrated her fourteenth birthday five days earlier. The second, who was fifteen, had just been chosen as a confirmation course leader at her local church, where she also sang in the choir. The third, a sixteen-year-old, had come with Margrethe from Stavanger and the two had shared a tent. The three girls all bled to death before the rescue team got to them."

This is part of the chapter called "Friday" in Asne Seierstead's One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. On July 22, 2011, a young man, possibly psychotic, blew up a bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight. He then drove to an island called Utoya, where there was a summer camp for young members of a progressive political party. He systematically shot to death 69. That total of 77, even in a country like the U.S., where these sorts of killings are commonplace, is disturbingly high.

Seierstad tells the story from a number of points of view. She gives us Breivik's biography. Here are a few quick sentences about him: "Anders was an angry boy and his punches were hard." "The specialists observed a boy who took no joy in life. Completely unlike the demanding boy his mother had described." "The little girls found him disgusting. He was so intense, and he was cruel to animals." "Anders was average at most things: average height, average at school, an average sort of bully."

He would go on to be a tagger (a graffiti artist of sorts), start a company making phony diplomas, and then a recluse, playing video games like World of Warcraft, sometimes for seventeen hours a day. His politics were virulently xenophobic--he fashioned himself a leader in denouncing multiculturalism and was fiercely Islamophobic and anti-Marxist. He corresponded with others in this political demimonde, and claimed he was a member of something called The Knights of Templar, though after he was arrested it was never determined that this organization actually existed.

Seierstad also takes the point of view of some of the victims, particularly a boy named Simon Saebo, a kind of wonder boy, and Bano Rashid, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, who had embraced her new culture in Norway as well as maintaining her old one.

Breivik is depicted as a classic sociopath, but with a political motivation. He was mostly angered by the changing face of Norway, which of course, unlike the U.S., was once completely white: "By about the mid-1990s, a third of those living in the eastern areas of Oslo city centre were from immigrant backgrounds. The largest group was the Pakistani community, who had come to Norway for work in the 1970s. Their children had one foot in each culture; the girls were closely supervised and generally not allowed out after school, the boys had a freer rein." Breivik, like many political murderers, wrote a long manifesto: "He rattled off a list of the accused. There were cultural Marxists, multiculturalists, suicide humanists, capitalist-globalist politicians, state leaders and parliamentarians. There were journalists, editors, teachers, professors, university leaders, publishers, radio commentators, writers, comic-strip creators, artists, technical experts, scientists, doctors and church leaders who had knowingly committed crimes against their own people."

The book can be slow going until the killing starts, but then it takes hold of you and won't let go. That chapter "Friday," which is the day of the murders (and in Norway is simply called "22 July," like Americans refer to 9/11) is one of the most gripping thirty or so pages I've ever read. He was so calm, but he did manage to yell out, "You're going to die today, Marxists!"

Seierstad reconstructs, from Breivik's writings to survivor accounts, what happened and when (when we read what Breivik was thinking it was all from his pen--he denied Seierstad an interview), After the bombing in Oslo, with even a description of the vehicle by a witness, Breivik had no trouble making his way to Utoya. The entire Norwegian police helicopter unit was on holiday. In a country that rarely saw murder, they were totally unprepared for something like this. "To judge by the way the Oslo police was behaving, little indicated that Norway had just been the target of an act of terror, with an acute risk of secondary attacks. When other districts offered support, their offers were largely declined, even though many potential targets around Oslo remained unsecured."

Breivik moved around the island, killing 69 and wounding many others, including one boy who barely survived a shot to the head which removed his eye and exposed his brain--he would testify against him. Breivik planned to surrender, and he did, and was examined by many psychiatrists. Some said he was responsible for his actions, others said he suffered from inflated narcissism, another said it was Asperger's. Breivik did not want to be judged insane, he wanted a trial.

He got one, and the description is harrowing. There was no doubt of his guilt, but the main thing was his mental status. His lawyers went along with his wish and did not claim insanity, and so he was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum for Norway, although he can be held indefinitely if he is still considered a danger, and his lack of contrition in prison indicates he probably will never get out.

This book is very thorough, and I would have appreciated an abridged version, at least for this first two-thirds. There's too much detail about Breivik, particularly in a section where he lives on a farm and concocts his fertilizer bomb. It seems like we find out what he had for every meal.

But by the end of the book I let that criticism go, as Seierstad, a famed war correspondent, writing for the first time about her own country, writes objectively and without judgment. It seems the facts are enough to curdle the blood when it comes to Anders Breivik, certainly one of the worst people you'll ever read about.

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