Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unfunny Clown

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 7-8, 2015

Shortly before he went to trial, the Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer Anders Breivik assured a psychiatrist that he was an essentially respectable character. Leaving aside a “window of three hours” on July 22nd, 2011, Breivik explained, he had never behaved threateningly to anyone. Inside that window, on the other hand, he murdered seventy-seven people. He began by detonating a van-bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight. He then proceeded to the small island of Utøya, where the youth wing of the Labour Party was holding its annual summer camp. There, using semi-automatic firearms equipped with laser sights, Breivik slaughtered sixty-nine further victims, most of them teenagers. Then he surrendered, so he could proceed to inform the world about his political motives. When the police made him strip, to confirm he wasn’t wired with a bomb, he grinned and struck a bodybuilder’s pose in his underpants. 

The prospect of spending 500 pages in the company of such a man is not tantalizing. But the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, whose previous works include The Bookseller of Kabul, has written an account of the Breivik case that magisterially transcends its limited and squalid central figure. Like Evil Angels, like In Cold Blood, this is far more than just a crime book. It’s a book about the whole of modern Norway. 

No evocation of Breivik’s context, though, could be thorough enough to explain, finally, why he did what he did. Even Breivik – especially Breivik – doesn’t seem to understand that. The 1,500-page manifesto he cobbled together in the months preceding the atrocity established only that the world of ideas was one of the many worlds in which he was not at home. He claimed to be worried about the “Islamisation of Europe,” but had a sneaking admiration for the methods and ideological purity of al-Qaeda. Plagiarising from a hodge-podge of incompatible sources, he sought to denounce Islam from the left and the far-right simultaneously. It bothered him that some Muslim immigrants found modern Norway decadent, even though he found it decadent too. He complained that Muslims didn’t respect Norway’s commitment to women’s rights, even though he bitterly resented that commitment himself. Part of his original plan, indeed, was to get to Utøya in time to behead the veteran feminist and Labourite Gro Harlem Brundtland, who had served as Norway’s first female Prime Minister, and was scheduled to speak on the island that morning. In the event, Brundtland had already left the island by the time Breivik arrived. 

The authentic Breivik, inasmuch as he existed at all, was a fascist. His methods made that obvious enough, and the zanier parts of his manifesto confirmed it. He didn’t really want Muslims to fit into modern Norway. He wanted to convert them to Christianity, forcibly. He wanted to deport those who didn’t comply. He wanted to establish off-shore breeding facilities where surrogate mothers would pump out blue-eyed babies to replenish the Nordic gene pool.

Seierstad's account of Breivik’s decline into monomania is intercut with the stories of some of the bright young Norwegians who had the foul luck to collide with his madness on Utøya. The most heartbreaking of these stories is that of Bano Rashid, an 18-year-old Muslim girl whose refugee parents had fled to Norway from Iraqi Kurdistan in order to get away from gun-toting men with extreme views. Bano grew up idolising Gro, the trailblazing Norwegian feminist whom Breivik planned to decapitate. Like her heroine, Bano was passionate about women’s rights. She dreamed of becoming Norway’s Minister for Equality. Her story might have been invented to prove the point that a Muslim can be at least as committed to so-called Western values as most Westerners are.

On the morning of the massacre Bano woke up sick, but insisted on travelling to the island to hear Gro speak. A few hours later, Breivik turned up. Seierstad’s fifty-page reconstruction of his rampage is meticulously researched, and almost unbearable to read. When the shooting started, Bano and her fellow campers were able to guess roughly what was happening. Somebody was hunting them down, and picking them off one by one. But who? Survivors would say that several possibilities occurred to them. Maybe it was Neo-Nazis, or al-Qaeda, or agents of Colonel Gaddafi ... 

But nobody’s imagination could possibly have been vivid enough to hit on the identity of the true culprit – the unfunny clown in his fake police outfit, with a homemade patch on the arm that said “Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.”

A theme ran through Breivik’s life: the theme of the hollow shell, of appearance unaccompanied by content. “He’s so ambitious,” one of his friends said, “but sort of empty at the same time.” He dropped out of school with plans to become a millionaire, but had no special thoughts about how he would make his money. He set up an online business that sold fake diplomas. Like the hero of American Psycho, he was fastidious about his looks, his body, his clothes – his Lacoste jersey, his Ralph Lauren shirts. He had a nosejob in his early twenties. He contemplated a hair transplant at the same time. He wore foundation. At one point in his manifesto he makes reference to his favourite cologne – Chanel Egoiste.

At the age of twenty-seven, the self-styled Übermensch moved back in with his mother. He spent endless hours locked in his room, playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. An attempt to marry a blue-eyed Internet bride from Minsk went awry, after the lady had spent enough time in Norway to find out what Breivik was really like. Here and elsewhere Breivik bears a passing resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, who actually did marry a woman from Minsk, but was ditched by her once she'd got a full load of his repellent personality.    

Serially rejected by the real world, Breivik began work on his slapdash manifesto. When that masterwork was complete, it wasn't long before he found himself starring in the first scene of his life where he felt fully potent and in charge: in the bomb lab on the rented farm, in his boiler suit, sweating over the vat of bubbling sulfur.

If we want to understand Breivik's motives, such as they were, the question of timing is important. Breivik himself has said that he began planning his atrocity as early as 2002. But Seierstad finds no evidence that his plot pre-dated the early months of 2011, when he started shopping for guns and bomb ingredients. There is good reason, in other words, to doubt Breivik’s claim that his “operation” grew out of a long period of meditation on Europe’s ills. It seems far likelier that he was already a deeply alienated and resentful man, by the time he embraced his half-baked racist ideology. Adopting that ideology made him more resentful and alienated still. Like many another terrorist, he gets you thinking about the symbiotic connection between extreme political beliefs and the rage of the thwarted male. 

“Was he a mad, or was he a political terrorist?” The question runs through Seierstad’s book like a leitmotif. But that distinction seems false, when a person’s political beliefs are mad in themselves. Breivik’s patently were. In his wilder fantasies he saw himself as a member of the medieval Knights Templar. He wanted to wind back the clock to the Crusades, just as his notional enemies at al-Qaeda do. At Breivik's trial, a medical expert testified that “we have too little psychiatric theory,” at the moment, to be able to say with confidence where political fanaticism ends, and where mental illness begins. Apparently this is a growth area in psychiatry.

Breivik himself wanted to be tried and sentenced as a sane “political activist.” The prosecution, reversing the normal order of things, argued for a finding of insanity. “His political world exists just to have a world to be psychotic in,” one psychiatrist testified. But Breivik’s lawyers cited an interesting technicality. For a subject to qualify as psychotic, his delusions must be “culturally inappropriate.” And Breivik’s, they argued, were not, since a sizable online subculture of other people believed them too. The court was persuaded by such arguments, and it deemed Breivik legally sane. In the internet age, it may be getting increasingly hard to qualify as delusional. 

But Seierstad doesn't go into the broader implications of the Breivik case. She confines herself to the facts, which she lays out in a scrupulous and harrowing way, and with a fine eye for the unforgettable detail. When the injured children were being ferried off Utøya, they were urged not to look back at the body-littered shore. “Some looked anyway, and screamed.” As night fell on the island, mobile phones continued to ring and light up near the dead bodies, each screen displaying the word Mum.

But one moment in the book is perhaps more eloquent than all the rest. The brother of one of Breivik's victims, sick of hearing politicians glibly affirm that Norway has triumphed over evil, says: “I shall never win over anyone as long as I’m a little brother short.” In the larger sense, Norwegian culture clearly has survived Breivik’s attack on it – Seierstad’s fine book is one proof of that. Like New York before it, like Paris after it, Norway has absorbed the act of barbarism and moved on. It was always going to. In that respect terrorism is futile. But even as it fails to win, terrorism inflicts losses. And each life it takes is irreplaceable. Seierstad doesn’t let us forget that fact either.