Asne Seierstad doesn’t hold anything back in her meticulous study of Anders Breivik, the man who murdered 77 innocent people in Norway’s capital, Oslo, and on Utoya Island in 2011.
Raised by a dysfunctional, mentally unstable mother who divorced Breivik’s father when Breivik was one year old, the future killer endured years of emotional abuse. While his father made some effort to help guide Anders, their relationship eventually fell apart after Anders continued to desecrate buildings with criminal graffiti.
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Desperate for attention from his coevals, Anders showed a recklessness in the pursuit of his would-be art. Seierstad shows us a Breivik driven by deep insecurities, one wishing to be recognized as an individual of purpose, a leader.
Not gaining respect even among his fellow destroyers of property, Anders pursues an alternate life of prestige and wealth. He flirts with stock market trading, but fails again. Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars on the market and failing to climb Oslo’s social ladder, Anders accepts employment as a customer service representative. But though he makes a living, he remains dissatisfied.
So once again, Breivik gambles. Working with a document forger in Indonesia, he sets up a highly lucrative website that sells fraudulent qualifications around the world. But then the new wealth goes to Breivik’s head. Anders spends too much and is forced to return to his mother’s apartment. His dreams fading, he retreats into the World of Warcraft gamer culture, which offers Breivik a fictional place where he can pursue glory, leadership, and prestige without the complexities of a public life.
Yet as Breivik becomes more reclusive, Seierstad describes his growing hostility towards Norway’s inclusive democracy. Hateful of feminists and immigrants—especially Muslim immigrants—and of liberal tolerance, Breivik starts writing a book. Seirstad notes ominously that when one of Breivik’s few friends asks him whether anyone will actually read the book, "Anders just smiled."
Hate now controlling his existence, Breivik becomes determined to wake Norway from what he regards as its tolerant democratic slumber. He moves to a farm outside of Oslo and begins to stockpile weapons and fertilizer to make improvised explosives. He also purchases steroids and energy narcotics to prepare himself for a showdown with the state.
Then, on July 22nd, 2011, Breivik enters Oslo and detonates a car bomb outside the prime minister’s residence. Eight are killed in the explosion and hundreds more are wounded.
The Norwegian government does not respond well to the crisis. Sensitive sites are not reinforced, and witness testimony that might help locate Breivik quickly isn’t transmitted. Breivik then travels to Utoya Island, a popular spot for youth retreats. Here, Seierstad spares no details, though there are times we might wish she would. It is difficult reading how Breivik carefully and slowly makes his way across the island executing the innocent teenagers gathered there: some stand in abject terror and wait to die, some run and are shot in the back as they try to escape, and others jump into the cold water in a desperate attempt to reach safety on the mainland.
The ineptitude of Norway’s response to the unfolding atrocity is stunning. After learning of the ongoing massacre, local police officers fail to appropriate local vessels in order to cross the few hundred meters that separated them from the Island. Instead, they wait for a SWAT team to arrive. When it finally does arrive, that team boards a police raft that nearly sinks. Fortunately, two civilian vessels rescue the police officers and help them complete their journey.
Once confronted by the police, Anders surrenders and tells the officers that they are not his enemy. As Seierstad explains it, Breivik is just satisfied that he has had time to kill so many. His mission is accomplished—liberal students have been eliminated.
Seierstad makes a strong case that Norway has let its citizens down, a failure continuing even though Breivik’s trial. Breivik uses the court as a propaganda platform, reveling in his circus of death—at one point he cries with joy as one of his propaganda videos is played for the amassed media. Today, in prison, he occupies his time with complaints on the order of his need for a new video game console. He needs more freedom to write propaganda letters to his twisted followers. The guards are torturing him by tapping their feet when he’s brushing his teeth.
Seierstad’s work is a fine, if necessarily gruesome narrative, and an indictment of a government’s failure to confront evil.