Books

Åsne Seierstad
One of Us

On July 22 , 2011, at the height of Norwegian summer, a man drove a van with a bomb in it up to a government building in Oslo. He lit the fuse and walked away. The massive blast killed eight people and injured hundreds more. As emergency services scrambled to the city centre, the blue-eyed, blond-haired man, now in a second vehicle in which he’d stashed some guns, drove towards the island of Utøya, where the ruling Labour Party’s youth arm was holding its annual summer camp. Once on the island, he shot the kids – most of his victims were between 14 and 19 – one by one and at close range. He shot them as they ran away, huddled in fear, begged for mercy. “You will all die today, Marxists!” he exclaimed. Close to running out of ammunition, he called the police, identified himself as Anders Behring Breivik, commander of the “Norwegian resistance movement” and “Knights Templar Europe” and said he was ready to surrender. While waiting for the cops to arrive, Breivik went and shot a few more kids. 

His victims might have been young, he explained to the police, but they were not “innocent”. He referred them to the lengthy manifesto he had released on the internet that same day. According to Breivik, the Labour Party’s commitment to such values as multiculturalism, humanism and feminism was paving the way for the “Islamification” of Europe. His manifesto quoted, distorted, plagiarised and idealised a range of sources from Aldous Huxley to neo-fascist websites. He detested academics, scientists, journalists, artists and others whom he believed were conspiring to hide the truth about the dangers of Islam, and admired people including John Howard, Peter Costello, George Pell and Keith Windschuttle.

One of Us doesn’t mention the Australian connection. But little else has escaped Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s forensic regard. The author of The Bookseller of Kabul, Seierstad was a foreign correspondent when her editor at Newsweek sent her to Oslo to cover Breivik’s trial in 2012. It was too big a story to be contained in a magazine article. So she pored through thousands of pages of documents and conducted hundreds of interviews, with police, psychiatrists, survivors, witnesses and the bereaved, Breivik’s childhood friends, and even his traumatised mother – who granted an interview as she lay dying from cancer. Breivik himself sent the author a bizarre and rambling letter signed: “With narcissistic and revolutionary wishes.” 

Seierstad paints a picture of a fractured family frequently on the radar of Norway’s child welfare organisations, and a child who never got quite enough love. As a teenager, Breivik experimented with identities, dropping them (and the friends who came with them) when he failed to achieve the recognition and validation he craved. In his early teens Breivik was even a graffiti artist who threw Arabic expressions into his speech and had a best friend named Ahmed. Later he became a self-styled “metrosexual” and activist in the youth wing of the ultra-conservative Progress Party. At one time, he ran an online business selling fake diplomas around the world. For almost five years from his late 20s, he ensconced himself in his bedroom, playing World of Warcraft and surfing right-wing websites. 

Seierstad interleaves Breivik’s creepy-sad story with those of his victims and their families. We meet Tone and Gunnar, from when they fell in love dancing to the Bellamy Brothers through to their raising two thoughtful and idealistic sons. We follow Mustafa and Bayan, as they flee Saddam Hussein’s attacks on their native Kurdistan and end up seeking asylum with their two little daughters in a country where, as the younger whispers in amazement, the people all have “Princess hair, real princess hair”. The book begins with a brief glimpse of the horror on the island. By the time it returns there, the effect is devastating: these victims are no mere statistics; we’ve watched them grow up.

There are other stories here as well, such as that of the astonishing incompetence of the police response to the sequential terrorist attacks. Among other things, they failed to act after the bomb had gone off and a witness phoned in Breivik’s description and the registration number of the car he drove off in. Things might have turned out differently, too, had his mother not been so trusting, or his neighbours more vigilant, or if it had not been so easy for Breivik to procure armaments from US and other online suppliers happy to ship out such things as bayonets labelled “sports equipment” for customs purposes. 

After Breivik surrendered to police, they ordered him to strip to his underpants to ensure he had no hidden weapons. He did – and immediately adopted classic muscle-man poses for their camera. He pointed out that he had spared some of the very youngest kids. “There are moral boundaries, aren’t there?” he said. Psychiatrists would hotly debate the question of his sanity; the nature of his sentence depended on it. In the end he was deemed to have a narcissistic personality disorder, but was criminally liable for his actions.

Seierstad’s vivid but immaculate prose never descends into sensationalism. Nor does she preach or editorialise. Yet One of Us is powerfully moving and provokes much thought – one could hardly ask for more from a work of nonfiction. 

We in Australia also have right-wing extremists, rabid Islamophobes and even white supremacists. There are people here who like to rip scarves off the heads of Muslim women, defile mosques and, for that matter, desecrate Jewish tombstones. When Man Haron Monis took hostages at the Lindt cafe in Sydney in the name of Islam, Islamic community leaders loudly denounced him and his actions; they’d previously warned police that he was dangerous. For the prime minister to imply, as he did recently, that when Islamic leaders condemn such violence they don’t really “mean it” undermines national security two ways. It makes Muslims feel wilfully misunderstood and vilified. And the extreme right take it as an imprimatur. Whistle up the dogs and they might just come.  CG

Virago, 352pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Åsne Seierstad, One of Us". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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