When terror hit Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, the world was stunned. As it emerged that the perpetrator was Norwegian, the country struggled to come to terms with the fact that these awful acts had been committed by one of their own.
One Of Us by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad (originally published in Norway as En av oss) opens with a prologue telling the harrowing tale of what it was like to be stranded on Utøya island with only the sound of gunshots for company.
“The heavy rain had eased off, but some last drops were still trickling down their necks and sweaty cheeks. They took in as little air as possible, trying to breathe without a sound. A raspberry bush had strayed out onto the cliff. Wild roses, pale pink, almost white, were clinging to the dance. The they heard footsteps approaching.”
She then proceeds to explore the history of Anders Beiring Breivik from his troubled childhood to his right-wing activism and online gaming addiction, all through the lens of his lengthy trial in the Oslo courtrooms.
Seierstad reveals how Breivik became obsessed with “saving Norway” from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism. He maxed out credit cards to buy sulphuric acid from used car dealers, lab equipment, shooting lessons, fertiliser and kilos of aspirin for the acetylsalic acid. He trained for months for the day and planned every aspect in meticulous detail.
Her research includes many excerpts from police interviews and Breivik’s testimony in court, not least about his motivations:
“If we can force them to change direction by executing seventy people, then that is a contribution to preventing the loss of our ethnic group, our Christianity, our culture. It will also help to preventing a civil war that could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Norwegians. It is better to commit minor barbarity than major barbarity.”
This is not an easy read, but it is a gripping one. She strikes a delicate balance of creating empathy with the victims (not a difficult task) with a fair account of Breivik’s background and motivations, but this is very much a journalistic investigation rather than a story. In fact, the book started life as an article for Newsweek, before Seierstad started to dig deeper to understand the fuller picture.
The book stirred up many of my own memories from the incident. I’d been living in Oslo city centre for just a few months when the bomb exploded and as I was inside at the time, I hadn’t quite realised what had gone on until a friend from the UK sent me a text message. The following weeks were a very strange introduction to a new city, but it’s a time that taught me a lot about the Norwegian mentality and their approach to justice.
Because of that personal connection with the incident, it’s difficult for me to be truly objective about this book and to say whether it will have the same impact on you.
I can only guess that because of Seierstad’s honest account – she recalls then-PM Jens Stoltenberg describing the eyes of a mother who’d just been told her daughter was not among the survivors as “like the entrance to hell” – it probably will. Think of it as a warning sign that radicalism can come from the most unexpected of places, hidden in plain sight.