Åsne Seierstad: One of Us

“He [Breivik] has not been able to see the ‘other’ in us… The ‘other’ could be wholly objectified as an enemy.”

It has been four years since Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a heinous act of violence that shocked the world. Joining an audience at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 26 May, award-winning foreign correspondent Åsne Seierstad discussed her new book examining the atrocity, One of Us, with contributing editor to the Financial Times, John Lloyd.

Drawing on extensive testimonies and interviews, Seierstad explores both the psyche of Breivik and the lives of his victims. The book’s title, One of Us, draws on this approach, and is a reference to Breivik and the Norwegian children he brutally murdered in 2011. “I struggled hard to find a title that would talk about both him and the victims,” admitted Seierstad.

The title is also a reference to Norwegian society, from which Breivik remained apart. “It’s important not to portray Anders Breivik as something alien. Being evil is being human. That’s the sad truth,” she said. “What made him, how was it possible? He was one of us.”

The discussion largely focused on the character of Breivik, with Lloyd posing the question of how it was possible for one man to commit such an atrocious act.

“Most of us, at some level, see the ‘other’ is us, we have some kind of empathy… that ceased to happen with Breivik.”

“In his worldview, he’s at war,” said Seierstad. “When he turns his brain into being at war, having a mission, there is no pity because these were not civilians, they were the enemy.”

Drawing parallels with other militant terrorist groups, Seierstad asked: “Do you think the guys in ISIS see the ‘other’ in the people they kill? I don’t think they do.”

“You must have asked yourself, where did the badness come from?” said Lloyd.

Seierstad used the analogy of the perfect storm to make sense of the ‘badness’ in Breivik: “If you had taken out one factor, one degree, one something, it wouldn’t have happened. For Breivik, there’s not one dramatic answer.”

Seierstad described a dysfunctional childhood and life of isolation, in which Breivik was incapable of finding a community to which he could belong.

After his political manifesto was ignored by far-right, anti-islamic websites, Seierstad explained: “He’s thinking, ‘what can I do to be read? I need to do something dramatic.’ He calculates how many people [he has to] kill to be noticed… he ends up killing 77 and he calls that day, the massacre, his ‘book launch’.”

An audience member asked Seierstad about the influence of public figures and hate preachers such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

“These people have a huge influence on Breivik,” said Seierstad. “The ingredients of their ideology, it’s the same at Breivik… I would hold them responsible for inspiring him and making him believe that what he did have followers.”

As the conversation came to an end, Seierstad recalled a letter from the mother of a victim. “She wrote to me and said: ‘I struggled my way through the book. It took me some time [but] I’ve decided that I now see it as a declaration of love towards my daughter and towards the other victims.’”

“Seierstad’s books have told stories that illuminate some part of human life,” added Lloyd. “We need these stories, and the greatest hope for the continuation of journalism is that people will still need to understand the world through narratives.”

Click here for more information about One of Us.