By Janet Somerville
War correspondent Åsne Seierstad, who has covered atrocities in Baghdad and Chechnya, turns her unflinching, candid eye to the July 2011 targeted killing of 69 Norwegian youth in her book One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. She appeared in conversation with Susan G. Cole at the Lakeside Terrace on Wednesday evening and spoke to a full house.
Cole set up the evening by suggesting that Seierstad tries “to get to the heart and soul and mind of the killer, while honouring the victims” and wondered why she chose to name him, when, as Canadians, we go out of our way to name the victims and deprive the killer of any infamy as in the case of the murder of the 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December 1989. Seierstad said, “We can’t put things under the carpet. Wherever there is darkness or a lack of knowledge there will be a conspiracy theory. Breivik was a political terrorist. His victims [adolescents at Labour Party Youth summer camp] were killed for what they believed in.”
There are three victims on whom Seierstad focused, “to get readers to know some of them deeply.” Like the two Iraq-born sisters, who received asylum in Oslo with their family and hoped for a better life, free from persecution: “one of them worked all summer to buy a Norwegian national costume to wear on May 17th and said to her sister, ‘whoever has a daughter first will inherit this dress.’” Another one, Simon, was killed as he tried to save others who had been shot. On the anniversary of his death, his parents took flowers to lay in the place he was executed.
Cole asked where Seierstad began her research. She “got accredited for the trial for Newsweek and was knocked sideways by being there. The courtroom was so small. One row of journalists, one row of Labour Party Youth, one row of parents.” Seierstad stayed for 10 weeks of the trial, witnessing 100 victims “speaking about what happened on the island for the first time. They hadn’t spoken to each other because they’d been so traumatized.”
At first she didn’t think she’d write much about Breivik, but it became clear to her that she could write about him using neutral language. She read childhood reports of his “bad start that was not bad enough, even though social workers were brought in because his mother was a borderline personality who would tell her son, ‘I hate you. I wish I had aborted you.’” Psychiatric assessments noted no eye contact, no smiling and he could never make a human, empathic connection. The only diagnosis he received was narcissism. Seierstad suggested Breivik “turned, when he went to his room for 5 years to play World of Warcraft for 16 hours each day. He started making connections online and sent letters to leaders of fascist extremes. He received letters of rejection in January 2010, started buying weapons, bullets, uniforms the next month, and in late 2010, learned how to build bombs.” He wrote a 1500 page manifesto, one-third of it his own thinking, and later said in court that “the massacre on the island was his book launch and the trial was his stage.” If those details are not horrifying enough, there is also the “police odyssey of incompetence,” which Seierstad attributed to the failure in police culture to listen or communicate. It is so painful to learn of those failures that could have prevented more than fifty deaths of teenagers that July day in 2011.
Cole wondered how Norway has changed. Seierstad’s response: “Not much. A solid society is not changed by one terrorist act. Our response is more love, more community. If one man can show so much hatred, think of all the love we can show together.” In the end what stays with her is the knowledge that “the parents and siblings of the victims are able to continue living. It is a chapter I can never close about losing a child.” Powerful. And, enormously sad.
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.