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'One Of Us' Examines The Damaged Inner Terrain Of Norwegian Mass Shooter

Columbine; Port Arthur, Australia; The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Newtown — the list goes on and on. And, by now, the elements of this type of massacre have become ritualized: usually one, but sometimes more than one, deeply disaffected person, almost always male, who is heavily armed with guns and/or explosives, targets the innocent. In the aftermath, which sometimes includes a trial, the crucial question of "Why?" is never really answered. Instead, most of us are left to wonder how any human being, however twisted, could be capable of such horror.

The 2011 mass murders in Norway fit the by-now-familiar template: On July 22, 2011, a lone 32-year-old man named Anders Behring Breivik first set off a car bomb outside government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people, and then traveled to the nearby island of Utoya where teenagers attending a Labor Party youth camp had gathered. There, over the course of an hour or so, Breivik, dressed like a policeman, walked around the island shooting; he ultimately murdered 69 people on that island, almost all of them teens. Over 100 more in both locales were seriously injured.

Award-winning war correspondent Asne Seierstad covered Breivik's trial in 2012 for Newsweek. Like Breivik, who's now in prison serving a maximum sentence, Seierstad is Norwegian. Listening to the weeks of testimony about Breivik's background and the years of planning that went into his attacks; listening to the eye-witness accounts of survivors of that waking nightmare on the island, Seierstad said she felt compelled to dig deeper. She wanted to probe that cosmic dark riddle of "why," but also to liberate the victims from the impersonality of a death roll. The result is her book, One of Us — engrossing, important and undeniably difficult to read.

As Seierstad demonstrates, a changing Norway shaped both Breivik and his victims. Beginning in the 1980s, as she puts it, a country of "dazzling whiteness" began to admit foreign workers from Pakistan and a growing stream of asylum seekers from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Breivik was growing up during these years, with his older half-sister and divorced mother. He later claimed that his family was broken "due to the secondary effects of feministic, sexual revolution." In reality, Breivik's father was absent almost from the start of the marriage. (By the way, one small problem I have with this book is that, because Breivik's father refused to be interviewed, he slips off the hook rather easily in comparison to Breivik's admittedly disturbed mother.)

The young Breivik hovered always on the margins of different groups — hip-hoppers, graffiti taggers, far right political organizations, The Free Masons — until he gained entrance to the "perfect meritocracy" of online war games that amped up his thirst for violence and his racist paranoia. Seierstad thoroughly investigates Breivik's damaged inner terrain — she even receives a few letters directly from him in prison — but in the end, we're inevitably left with the vast strangeness of evil.

In contrast, the kids whom Breivik would target because they represented the multiculturalist future are more touchingly familiar. They're full of teen energy, particularly about social justice. Indeed some, like a girl named Bano Rashid born in Iraqi Kurdistan, were themselves refugees. Seierstad focuses particularly on Bano and a few other students. Through extensive interviews with survivors, she's constructed a minute-by-minute account of how the attack unfolded on the island — a narrative technique that could devolve into voyeurism but doesn't. That's because Seierstad depicts the students in all their messy adolescent humanity. There are many, many indelible images in Seierstad's account, but one of the most powerful is that of a band of kids with an adult who remain flattened in the grass as Breivik approaches, firing at other fleeing campers. This band stays put because they're helping another teenage girl who's already been shot multiple times. Each of them is holding a stone, pressed against her bleeding wounds.

As hard as it is to read about the attack, as frustrating as it is to learn how many delaying mistakes the first responders made and as monstrous as Breivik is, the kids on that island that day were beautiful in their idealism. They deserve to be witnessed, which is the ultimate reason to read One of Us.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.