The Mind of a Mass Murderer

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the
Massacre in Norway
by Åsne Seierstad
Virago, 2015, 544 pages, $35

Utøya: Norvège, 22 juillet 2011, 77 morts
by Laurent Obertone
Editions Ring, 2013, 400 pages, €20


anders victimsTwo years after Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb in the centre of Oslo, killing eight people and injuring two hundred, and then went to the island of Utøya where he shot to death sixty-nine young people, all young members of Norway’s Labour Party, and injured severely more than thirty others, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the whole life sentences passed on three British murderers (which meant that they would never be released from prison) were degrading and inhuman, in breach of their fundamental human rights: for, said the court, such sentences allowed for no repentance, redemption or rehabilitation, the three Rs of the humanitarian theory of punishment.

It beggars belief, surely, that judges on a continent that had within living memory witnessed some of the worst atrocities in human history could conceive of no crime so terrible that it was beyond the reach of those three Rs. Had Dr Mengele been captured and imprisoned, for example, they would have been content to release him once he had convinced them that he was sorry for what he had done and would never do it again. For them, punishment and therapy were indistinguishable, perhaps because in their philosophy no man does wrong knowingly and therefore has to be brought not so much to God as to knowledge, including moral knowledge, for example that conducting vicious experiments on little children is wrong.

Their grasp of the principles of the rule of law was weak, as indeed was that of the Norwegian penal code according to which Breivik, having been found criminally responsible for his acts, was sentenced to the maximum term of imprisonment allowed under the code, that is to say twenty-one years. Twenty-one years for having killed seventy-seven people, or just over three months’ imprisonment per murder! No wonder many Norwegians thought the sentence derisory, one parent exclaiming (quite correctly, and with a much better grasp of the rule of law than the framers of the Norwegian penal code) that he should have been sentenced to seventy-seven sentences of twenty-one years to run consecutively, that is to say 1617 years’ imprisonment: in effect, of course, imprisonment for the term of his natural life, assuming no dramatic breakthroughs in medical science to extend the span of human life well beyond that of Methuselah.

But there is a get-out under the Norwegian penal code, a get-out that is genuinely and seriously in breach of human rights: for if, after twenty-one years, Breivik is considered still to pose a danger to society, he may be kept in prison for a further five years, and after that for another five years, and so on ad infinitum. Since Breivik is now only thirty-two years of age, it is conceivable that he could spend twice as long under preventive detention as under detention mandated by a proper court: in other words, serve twice as long for what he might do as for what he actually has done. But such preventive detention, susceptible to all kinds of political pressures, to say nothing of the inherent impossibility of predicting anyone’s future behaviour beyond reasonable doubt, either in the direction of committing further crime or of not committing it, has no place under the rule of law.

This essay appears in the May edition of Quadrant.
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The three British murderers on whose case the ECHR ruled were not as bad, which is to say as prolific in killing, as Breivik, but there comes a point in evil at which it is fruitless, even obscene, to apply a simple measure of comparison. A man who rapes and murders four people is not half as bad as one who rapes and murders eight: and the three British murderers were bad enough to have merited their sentence. One killed five members of his family; another killed his wife shortly after having been released from prison after serving a sentence for the murder of another person; and the third killed four young homosexual men for his own sexual pleasure. Apparently, the ECHR thought they all deserved a second (or a third and a fifth) chance.

No doubt the judges of the ECHR hugged their robes tightly around themselves as they delivered their judgment, warmed by their awareness of their own humanity; but in fact their judgment was as cruel even to the appellants as well as it was psychologically crude, additionally being against the rule of law for the reasons given above. For they did not rule that the men should never actually be released, only that consideration be given to such release regularly, thus laying them open to a cycle of false hope and subsequent disappointment, allowing, indeed mandating, officialdom to play a game of cat-and-mouse with them. By contrast, a man may make the most of his situation if he knows for certain what it is.

one of usBreivik, in fact, had every intention of making the most of his imprisonment, at least according to a book about him, One of Us, by Åsne Seierstad, a well-known Norwegian journalist who attended Breivik’s trial. Unlike most mass killers, Breivik did not die either by police action or suicide, but meekly gave himself up; indeed, he had already tried to do so when he had killed “only” forty youngsters, but could find no one to surrender to, so he went on killing. His plan was to use prison as a retreat in which he could write and from which he could spread his ideas; he was outraged when his access to a word-processor was limited and the pen he was given to write with was not to his taste. It may seem incredible that a man who had just killed seventy-seven people should immediately start to complain of minor inconveniences (he also complained of the view from his cell and that he was given the wrong sweaters to wear) as if he were being maltreated, if not tortured, by the authorities, but in fact it is often the most conscienceless criminals who have the liveliest or most acute sense of what is, or what they think is, their due. Few men are so lacking in compassion that they are incapable of self-pity.

It was only natural that world attention should be fixed for a time on a man who, in a matter of only a few hours, singlehandedly more than doubled his country’s annual rate of murder. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that seeking such attention was a part, probably a large part, of the motivation for his mass killing: for there undoubtedly exists a class of men (almost always men) so avid for fame but impatient of the discipline usually necessary to achieve it by normal or constructive means that they resort to a dramatic, bloodthirsty coup that will keep their names alive if not for ever, at least for much longer than if they had just gone to work like everyone else. How else but by slaughter would Anders Behring Breivik have had books written about him in several languages? His victims were sacrificed on the altar of his ego.

Are such types as he more common now than previously? The cult of celebrity certainly breeds an ambition to be noticed by large numbers, as if to be were to be seen; and the cult also breeds resentment and bitterness, inasmuch as celebrity is a scarce commodity that is distributed according to no obvious principle and therefore unjustly. From resentment at supposed injustice it is but a small step to paranoia.

Like many of his type, Breivik was an ambitious mediocrity. In that regard, at least, he was representative of his age, which has passed seamlessly from meritocracy, the social ascension of the able irrespective of social origin, to that of mediocracy, the social ascension of the ambitious irrespective of their ability.

Ambition cannot remain free-floating for long, it has to attach itself to something. Early in his life Breivik, who had no patience for scholastic achievement, sought eminence among the youth of Oslo who adorned the walls and buildings of that city with graffiti; then he tried several get-rich-quick schemes, the most successful of which was in the sale of fake university diplomas. He soon lost any money that he made on one scheme on the next; and, never having had a steady job, he then retired to a room in his mother’s flat where, for five years, he played a competitive online war game in which he rose in the ranks, an achievement of a kind but a worthless one.

anders uniformBreivik was a serial fantasist who loved to dress up in uniforms. Thanks to the influence of an uncle, he joined the Masons and had himself photographed in Masonic regalia: but Masonry were far too rigorous, and demanded far too much discipline, for him to rise in the ranks. He devised a military uniform for himself, complete with self-awarded medals, though he had avoided his compulsory military service by claiming to be his mother’s carer (he would have liked the army, provided that he entered it with the rank of general). Like many an ambitious mediocrity, he was a firm believer in hierarchy so long as he was at the top of it.

Having previously expressed little interest in politics, his first political commitment was to the Progress Party, Norway’s most conservative parliamentary party (an odd choice of name, perhaps, for a conservative political formation, but not even conservatives would vote for a Regress Party). Breivik was soon disillusioned by the party, initially not because of any disagreement with its policies but because it failed to choose him as a candidate for a council election. Ever inclined to find fault with those who did not recognise him at once for the genius he took himself to be, he decided that the route of conventional politics was hopeless, that Norway was too far down the declivity of what he called cultural Marxism, of which multiculturalism was its most important and dangerous manifestation, to be saved by anything but conspiratorial revolutionary activity. However, he failed even in his attempts to reach others of like mind. His overtures were not responded to, or only perfunctorily. He was too much of a crank even for other cranks.

Failure only hardened his conviction that he had a mission of national, if not of world-historical, importance to fulfil. In this he was rather like another Norwegian misfit, Vidkun Quisling. In fact, Quisling was a man of much greater native ability than Breivik, being both a gifted mathematician and linguist, speaking English and Russian fluently, an ability that made him Fridtjov Nansen’s right-hand man in the latter’s efforts to bring famine relief to millions of peasants in the wake of the Russian Revolution. But Quisling had some of the same faults as Breivik, among them a belief that repeated failure only proved how right he was, and that he alone had truly grasped the nature of the threat posed by Marxists to his country: beliefs that made co-operation with others difficult and provided a justification in advance for anything and everything that he did. What was written of Quisling in a biography could have been written of Breivik:

[His] lack of realism was his strength and, at the same time, his greatest weakness. Quisling’s immunity from political reality provided him with the power to ignore political reverses which would have crushed the spirit of a less introverted man.

Obstinacy might be a better word than strength to describe these two men’s determination.

There was one difference between Quisling and Breivik, though; the former thought he was the Saviour, the latter that he was only John the Baptist. Breivik’s act was supposed to be the spark that ignited the fire of resistance to what he saw as Islamic domination throughout Europe, resistance that would save it from demographic and cultural extinction.

When someone acts as cataclysmically as Breivik, without warning and apparently without serious criminal antecedents, we feel the need to understand, though it is by no means clear what would constitute satisfactory understanding. At what point would any of us be able to say, “Aha, now at last I understand why Breivik shot so pitilessly sixty-nine young people on Utøya”? That point, I suspect, will never come: for at the heart of all human behaviour there lies an unresolvable mystery.

But if we are destined finally not to understand, we are equally destined to try to do so: such is Man’s Sisyphean task. We use various means: the biographical, the empathic, the sociological, the historical, the ideological and even, sometimes, the neurological. Åsne Seierstad’s book, for example, relates Breivik’s personal trajectory in considerable detail which, lacking intrinsic interest, she must do on the supposition that the origin of the acts that gave him worldwide notoriety must be sought in his biography.

Anders Breivik was a child of the new type of family arrangements that have comprehensively replaced the traditional nuclear family in much of Europe. His mother already had a child by a previous liaison when he was born; his father, a diplomat, had three children by a previous marriage to whom he seemed singularly indifferent and unattached. His mother and father married when she was pregnant; she had been so worried by his coldness that she considered aborting the child, but finally decided against and got married instead. The marriage lasted only about a year, however; and young Anders had very intermittent contact with his father thereafter.

Early in his childhood, Breivik displayed signs of oddness: inability to make friends, a failure to play normally and occasional misbehaviour, for example. His mother found it hard to cope with him, and she herself was noticed to be odd. Before long, the social services and child psychiatrists were invoked, but after a certain amount of inconclusive investigation they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they either could or should do. Nor are the results of interventions by social services or child psychiatrists any guarantee of a happy outcome.

What is one to make of this? It is clear that Anders Breivik’s upbringing was far from ideal, but many children have had far more disturbed upbringings than his without resort later in life to bombs and machine guns. Perhaps his genetic inheritance was far from ideal also, for his father showed a marked tendency to emotional coldness and self-centredness. On the other hand, such self-centredness was l’air du temps: it was the decades following the 1960s, when human relations, especially those between men and women, were now supposed to be founded upon the state of their affections and on nothing so unromantic and inhibiting as mutual obligation, contract, material interest or duty towards others (for example children). In such a moral environment, it was hardly surprising that fathers, tiring of mothers, should abandon them in their search for personal happiness (“I needed my space,” as many a child-abandoner has told me).

Limited though such material about Breivik’s upbringing is in explanatory power, we should find it odd if a book devoted to his exploits omitted it altogether, so strong is our instinctive belief that the child is father to the man.

utoya coverAnother approach is taken by a French author, Laurent Obertone, a pseudonymous journalist specialising in crimes of violence. His book, Utøya: Norvège, 22 juillet 2011, 77 morts, is an attempt to tell the story in the first person, that of Breivik, on the assumption that if we could enter his point of view we should reach that Eureka! moment when we felt that we had understood.

The book was strongly criticised in France on two grounds. The first was that it was sensationalist, though this seems to me odd. What Breivik did understandably caused a sensation; if it was to be written about at all (and what degree of censorship would have been necessary to ensure that it was not written about?), it could hardly be written about in the language of the audit of the accounts of a municipal library.

The second criticism of the book was that it attempted to see and recount things from Breivik’s point of view and was therefore some kind of apologetic for him. It risked not only lessening the monstrousness of what he did, but even partially justifying it.

This criticism was also odd, but in another way. It was the same criticism that was levelled at the film Downfall about the last days of Hitler, which was accused of presenting Hitler in too human a way. But Hitler was a human being, not an alien parachuted in from outer space, which is precisely why he is so frightening; the realistic representation of such a figure can only be objectionable to those who believe that to explain all is to forgive all, to those who take a purely naturalistic view of humanity, so that ultimately morality has no autonomous sphere but is only a matter of sociology, economics and even physiology as the movement of billiard balls is only a matter of the laws of motion.

Obertone obviously based his reconstruction of Breivik’s thought processes before, during and after the massacre on the public record and Breivik’s expressed opinions. After all, his 1500-page manifesto was easily available on the internet (I read about thirty pages of it before deciding that life was too short to read further), and so it would not be very difficult to construct a plausible first-person account. The book is in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, not a tradition that I much admire, for it seems to me that where such a book is accurate it claims the prestige of scholarship and where inaccurate the privileges of fiction. However, Obertone’s depiction of Breivik is plausible and not much in conflict with the known facts about him.

What upset the reviewers, I suspect, is that some of Breivik’s complaints against Norwegian society as relayed by Obertone, while grotesquely exaggerated, have an element of truth, or at least an element that is not incontestably false. When the distinguished French novelist, essayist and editor at Gallimard (from which he was immediately sacked), Richard Millet, suggested, in his Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik, that Breivik’s actions were the reaction of someone exasperated by the deliberate and irreversible destruction of Norwegian national identity by the policies promoted by multiculturalist dogma, he was immediately treated as a heretic rather than as someone who had put forward an argument, however mistaken.

Some of Millet’s formulations were both unwise and distasteful, for example that the killings had a formal literary perfection; but the fact that Breivik cold-bloodedly slaughtered sixty-nine young people on the island of Utøya who might well have been the future leaders of the party most militantly attached to multiculturalism (for among other reasons as a vote bank) does not automatically mean that the policy of admitting large numbers of people, a proportion of whom at least may be, or become, the bearers of a deeply hostile and dangerous ideology, all for no reasons of national interest but purely out of a kind of moral vanity, exhibitionism, grandiosity and hubris (“Aren’t we good people?!”) is wise, prudent or even moral. Events in Europe and elsewhere do not ineluctably lead to the conclusion that, for example, Sweden’s determination to take in more refugees from Syria is in that country’s long-term interest, or even conduces to the peace of the world.

What Breivik’s monstrous action did was to make discussion of the whole question difficult to the point of impossibility. If you do not subscribe to the eternal truths of multiculturalism (discovered, it must be confessed, rather late in human history), you must be an apologist for Breivik. Like many dichotomies, this is a false one: false in logic, though not necessarily in political psychology, and it is the latter which counts. What Breivik did, who preposterously believed himself to be some kind of Knight Templar, was immensely strengthen the multiculturalists. On one side angels, on the other devils.

One of Us recounts not only Breivik’s trajectory, but also those of a few of his victims. This is always a dangerous procedure, for it suggests that the nature of the victims is what determines the seriousness of a crime. But Breivik’s crime would have been just as heinous if he had gone into a prison and killed, say, the seventy-seven worst criminals in Norway. The crime is mass murder, not the mass murder of particular individuals. Nor does being a victim make a victim retrospectively a paragon.

For myself, I found the young members of the Norwegian Labour Party as depicted by Seierstad somewhat unattractive. They were energetic and public-spirited all right, but priggish, as youthful idealists so often are. On Utøya, for example, they heard a lecture about the Western Sahara, of which country they had never previously heard and of which naturally enough they now heard from one side of the question only, and immediately concluded that they had to do something about it. Not for an instant did it occur to them that they might not be intellectually qualified, or have a moral locus standi, let alone be morally required, to do something about the Western Sahara. Here was moral grandiosity in all its nakedness, together with suffocating self-righteousness and a complete lack of awareness that they were in practice forming themselves into an elite so that they might well grow up to be a mixture of Machiavelli and Mrs Jellyby. But—need I really add?—killing them was still the most despicable act.

Oddly enough, Seierstad’s book, probably without meaning to, provides an argument against multiculturalism infinitely stronger than any that the ranting, grandiose and brutal Breivik could supply. One of Breivik’s victims was a young woman called Bano Rashid, the daughter of Kurdish refugees (ed: Her image and casket, draped with the Kurdish flag atop the Norwegian one, is below). Born in Iraqi Kurdistan, she arrived in Norway as a young girl. Her aim in life was to integrate herself thoroughly into Norwegian society, an admirable goal but not easily achieved, for the Norwegians, though welcoming in the abstract, are not particularly warm in practice. Nevertheless, gifted and hard-working, she succeeded, becoming something of a youth leader (horrible term!) and joining the Norwegian Labour Party. Breivik murdered her on Utøya.

bano coffinAt Breivik’s trial, her sister, Lara, said, “Bano didn’t die for nothing. She died for a multicultural Norway.” This was untrue and betrayed her sister’s memory. Bano wanted a normal career in Norway, and would probably have found a Norwegian husband. Having grown up mostly in Norway, she specifically disliked much of the Kurdish culture her parents had fled. It is unlikely, had she married a Norwegian, that she would have taught her children Kurdish; her Kurdishness would soon have been reduced to cuisine and occasional folkloric manifestations, that is to say fancy dress at outdoor festivals. Thus she died not for a multicultural Norway, but because she wanted so much to be assimilated. She died not for multiculturalism, but for assimilation, for Norwegian-ness.

Anthony Daniels, who also writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, is a prolific writer on social, medical, literary and other matters. His most recent book, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality (Encounter Books), was published in March. He wrote on Simon Leys in the April issue.

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