During the Open Book Festival in Cape Town I attended a meeting: Writing Big Events with Asne Seierstad, Mandla Langa, and Neel Mukherjee. Steve Connolly interviewed the three writers from very different countries and backgrounds. All three covered in their book a historical period or occasion. The common ground of the three totally different books is extremism. I think that today, while politicians and governments tend to answer the extremist deeds of terrorists with extreme violence, it is more important than ever to read and learn about the different faces of extremism. If we refuse to learn from history we are deemed to make the same mistakes over and over again, which is what we do. Today a description off and some thoughts on Asna Seierstad’s One of us.
Asna Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist, who was always covering stories from the Middle-east and didn’t think of her homeland as a place to write about. But in One of Us she did. Minutely she decomposes what happened before, during and after 22 July 2011 in Oslo, the day that Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 kids and 8 grown ups.
Seierstad begins her book by giving the reader insight into the family lives of very different people all living in Norway. The family of the Kurdish Mustafa and Bayan, who fled with their young girls from Iraq in 1999, and the family of the charismatic Simon, who has been politically inspired from a very young age and starts being active in the Labour Party, are only two of the different portrayed families. In the first part of the book we get a clear picture of the families from different parts of Norway. And one of them is the family Behring Breivik, or I’d better say, the remains of what was a family for only a short period, because mother and father did not get along very well and they separated when Anders was six months old. Mother suffers from depressions, is a neurotic and egocentric kind of person who keeps abusing and neglecting the boy. One moment she attracts him, and then repels him and this she does over and over again. The boy is a lonely kid, and one can feel empathy with him. He is not capable of establishing real friendship. He tries desperately to become someone, and as he grows up, he tries again and again. First he tries to impress the guys of the graffiti scene, but he fails. Then another attempt, becoming someone in the Progress party, a very right wing party, but neither there does he find somebody who is impressed by him. Slowly the drama develops; year after year the intentions of the guy become more and more extreme. It is devastating to read how he could develop in such an extreme way and the felt empathy for the guy disappears. It is shocking to read how he finds himself absorbed in the virtual reality of World of Warcraft, which he plays for more than four years. He is a grown-up man at that time, returned to his mother’s house, who doesn’t like to see him behind the screen day and night, but what can one do? She doesn’t know how to stop him.
Later he retreats to a farm to prepare his terrorist activities. In the woods he experiments with explosives, and loads of fertilizer are delivered, but not a single bit is dissipated over the land. His neighbors think of him as a strange person, but being strange is not against the law, is it?
On July 22 a security guard signalizes on the security monitor how the guy parks a bus in front of the no-parking area of the building that housed the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minster’s office. Well, apparently this happens often.
The police officer received a post-it card on his desk on which a description was given of Breivik and even the number of the license plate of the car in which he had driven off, five minutes before the explosion occurred, on his way to Utøya. But the officer was too busy to notice the note. So other policemen were not warned. Therefore Breivik could do what he wanted to do this day. The day he would call: the day of his book launch. On the internet he left a thousand-page-manuscript, and thanks to his deeds, he was sure this time he would get the attention he so desperately looked for.
One of us is a highly impressive book. Because of the meticulous research Seierstad has done and the sensitive way she brings the different protagonists alive. We know the outcome, but we don’t know whom of the young kids that we got to know, will survive and who won’t and as a reader you can feel the tension that is a just a tiny bit of what the next of kin must have felt, when we hear how the assassin is raging on at Utøya, and we fear the death of the kids and we hope that they will escape.
The book about the day that shocked Norway and the world is very well written; there is no difference in the way the families of the victims and the assassin are described. Seierstad said in Cape Town: ‘though the killer and the killed are so different in temperature, I wanted to use the same language for all of them.’ And she did.
The book is also an astonishing accumulation of human failures that made the murders possible. The dramatic events in the centre of town and the ongoing slaughter on the small island Utøya that could occur for more than one and a half hour, has reached such enormous proportions, due to the many failures of the police. The outcome is so dramatic, that it makes it impossible to laugh about it, but the examples of failures read as if it is the script of a Monty Python film. The police boat had to be inflated and gasoline had to be found, while a ferry was ready to bring the police over. No one thought of that, and when they did, they decided that one could not be transported on an ordinary ferry; it should be a police boat. Too many policemen boarded at least, because everyone wanted to come, so the boat was overloaded and started to sink. And this is just a whim of everything that went wrong and took a lot of time. Precious time in which the perpetrator went on shooting, taking more and more lives, minute by minute.
When it became clear that a terrorist attack was going on, both in the centre of Oslo and on the island of Utøya, people thought that these must be deeds committed by foreign terrorists, most likely Al-Quaeda or another Arabic organization. It turned out to be ‘one of us’. How could this happen? In Cape Town Seierstad responded on the question what made Breivik ‘fertile ground for extremism’ as follows: she is sure that the main cause for his deeds must be found in the unsafe attachment to his parents in his youth. Let’s not jump to simple conclusions. There is not one profile that can predict if a person turns into someone who will commit extreme deeds. Of course we can’t conclude that people who grow up in broken or deprived families will always commit terrorists deeds. But there can be a certain risk, if nothing is done to heal what was a broken in the soul of a neglected child. We should keep in mind what the Norwegian writer and dramaturge Hjalmar Söderberg wrote in 1905, a quote we find above Part One of Seierstads book: We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact. (Dokter Glas, 1905)