Asne Seierstad has written an essential volume that stares the ugliness of hatred in the eye, and doesn’t flinch.
Scandinavian countries such as Norway exist in a stereotypical utopia for many of us in the United States. We picture places where beautiful, blonde-haired people live in perfect harmony with government-subsidized health and child care, a civilization powered by renewable energy that enjoys three months off for vacation every year. However, glimpses of an ugly underside, festering under Scandinavia’s rosy surface, have dribbled out of the region. The best-selling trilogy by Stieg Larsson exposed a violent right-wing element that has existed in Sweden and Norway for decades. Similar to the sentiment espoused by Donald Trump in the United States, there is a strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim movement in Scandinavia.
One of Us, Asne Seierstad’s searing account of one of the worst massacres of this young century, investigates the undercurrent of racism that plagues Norway. Filtered through the story of Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who murdered 77 people in 2011, Seierstad investigates why such hatred exists in Norway and just how one man killed so many.
Breivik’s horrific crimes shocked the world on July 22, 2011 when he detonated a van full of explosives outside the building which housed the prime minister’s office in Oslo, killing eight people in the blast. With all of Norway’s attention focused on the explosion, Breivik, dressed in a police uniform, made his way to the small island of Utoya, undetected by the authorities. There, in a rampage that lasted for hours before he surrendered, Breivik shot to death 69 more people, most of them teenagers taking part in a leftist political party retreat.
Seierstad takes her time getting to July 22, using a good portion of the book to set up the lives of Breivik and some of the young people he murdered in cold blood. This is an important and calculated move. Rather than just supply us with the names and gruesome details of murder, we spend hundreds of pages with Breivik and his victims, seeing fully-fleshed portraits of the people we know will die horribly at his hands. It adds a level of sadness as we witness these successes and dreams with the knowledge that these people will likely be shot to death before the final page.
Still, much of the book focuses on Breivik in an attempt to understand just why he killed so many people. Seierstad takes great pains to humanize (but never exonerate) the killer, beginning with his childhood where he came from a broken home, living with his mentally ill mother, his father absent. As a child, Breivik was different, often friendless and cruel to animals. He fell in with a group of graffiti artists as a teenager, but soon lost the group’s approval. Breivik struggled, looking for his niche, but never finding it. He was sworn into the society of Masons, but then did nothing. Even a stint as an activist in the anti-immigrant Progress Party saw Breivik get passed over for his more dynamic peers. Narcisstic and uncomfortable in his own skin, Breivik began to take steroids, wear makeup and even underwent plastic surgery to remove a bump on his nose.
In 2006, Breivik moved back in with his mother and spent five years more or less locked in his room, playing online video games and working on a manifesto that condemned Norway’s embrace of Muslim immigrants and bemoaned the country’s progressive political leanings. Soon, he rented a farm and began to work on the bomb that he would detonate in Oslo. As Seierstad painstakingly recreates the hours leading up to the massacre, she also demonstrates how so many little differences could have prevented the catastrophe. Sadly, none of these things happened and Breivik’s plan went off without a hitch.
One of Us is not an easy read. Seierstad does not shy away from violence and in a grueling 72-page stretch graphically outlines Breivik’s rampage. In harrowing detail she describes each murder, showing us the trajectory of the bullets as they cut short so many young lives. Even more difficult is the grief and sorrow she portrays of the parents of the murdered teenagers as they learn that their children will not return from Utoya.
Despite issues with translation and some awkward dialogue, One of Us is a must read for history buffs and for those hoping to understand just why someone would murder 77 people. It also proves that extremism isn’t solely an American problem. If we are going to tackle hatred head-on, the only way to defeat it is to understand where it comes from and why. Asne Seierstad has written an essential volume that stares the ugliness of hatred in the eye, and doesn’t flinch.