The Invisibility of Evil

15. 3. 2017

Asne Seierstad, Jeden z nas, trans. Iwona Zimnicka, WAB, Warszawa 2015

This is not a treatise on the dark side of human nature. Neither is it an attempt at an in-depth diagnosis of the sources of cruelty and evil. And finally, it is not an impassioned moral call, a journalistic memento for Western civilization mired in ignorance, producing individuals radically opposed to its allegedly core values. In her meticulous and detailed report, Ann Seierstad on the one hand avoids the pitfalls of sterile metaphysical deliberations, and on the other hand she adroitly passes by the rocks of simple or rather simplistic moralizing. Like a faithful disciple of Truman Capote—who, when writing In Cold Blood, repeatedly emphasized that for him an ideal reportage involves a complete annihilation of individual style and creating a perspective remindful of a transparent glass through which the reader is observing the events undisturbed by any literary influences— she reports step by step the facts from the life of a man proclaimed one of the most cruel mass murderers in the history of contemporary West. She also tells the story of his victims and the country he had been born in. Sparingly using stylistic embellishments, she paints a panorama of contemporary Norway and is implicitly looking for the answer to the question of how it was possible that this modern, liberal society did not realize early enough that in its midst there appeared… But exactly who appeared? A monster? A psychopath? A terrifying beast? A victim of complicated family relationships—an immature mother and a father who abandoned and never accepted him? Or perhaps the eponymous “one of us,” an individual exemplification of problems and pathologies eroding contemporary Western democracies? And again, an important asset of Seierstad’s story is exactly the fact that she tries to avoid unambiguous answers to these questions, slipping from the tight embrace both of a tabloid narrative, and of a psychoanalytical or political one.

However, any attempt at a journalistic description of an individual life is also an interpretation, incorporating into the narrative frame something which is always to some extent unknowable and incomprehensible. In this context Breivik from Seierstad’s book emerges as a product of his times and culture. Brought up in an atmosphere of emotional coldness, with an absentee father and a mother offering him a classic double — constantly sending him incomprehensible, self-contradictory signals, for example, punishing for something which she ordered him to do a minute ago, or rewarding him for something previously forbidden—he develops from his earliest years a pathological need for prestige and recognition. They become ends in themselves for him, rather than a by-product of gradual entering into the word of social relations and dependencies, achieving professional or academic goals.

In a very early stage Breivik comes to the conclusion that reality is exclusively a territory of game-playing and competition. Unfortunately, his need for domination, manifested at every turn, soon dooms him to loneliness, for he tries to build the position of a leader on the quicksand of his own ambitions and on imitating external attributes of leadership, rather than working on himself or developing “natural” abilities and competences which would predispose him for such a role. This fixation on externality, on appearances, ignoring real values behind social roles, constant role- playing replacing authentic relationships and growth, as well as aggression and isolation increasing with the sense of frustrated fulfilment— all this makes Breivik into a classic case of a sociopath, whose soul, as Adolf Guggenbuhl- Craig once wrote, is hollow inside, while outside, like a chameleon, tries to assume the shapes observed around it. But since it has no substance, it always painfully fails and when that happens, it goes somewhere else, trying to start from the beginning. When successive attempts prove futile, the man possessed of such a soul encloses himself in the cosmos of his own fantasies, he feeds on an increasingly toxic ideology and prepares a plan which will make him into a savior of his country and a person who will forever change the face of modernity. In this context he is remindful of the protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever or the underground man from the famous novella of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (incidentally, the author of Elementary Particles alludes to this work in his first novel), but his vision of destruction and the need for applause exceed by far the relatively modest reservoir of aggression in his two literary predecessors.

As a teenager, Breivik attempts a career in the anonymous and hierarchical subculture of graffiti artists. He feels best among representatives of immigrant street gangs, he is especially fond of Arabs. Despite the fact that they are traditionally in conflict with native Norwegian gangs, he quickly succeeds in gaining their affection. Very soon his graffiti appears on buildings in several districts of Oslo, but despite his obvious talent he is no longer liked by his peers, for he ostentatiously breaks the rules and customs represented by this closed group. He is arrogant and authoritarian—as one of his friends and comrades from that time reports in the book—he ignores the established borders between areas controlled by particular gangs, he enters territories “belonging” to others and triumphantly decorates them with his tag. In this subculture this is an unforgivable behavior. So he soon becomes an object of aggression, ridicule and contempt. The telemarketer job he takes after finishing high school also does not give him the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. He resigns from it after a short period and declares that he will never again have anyone above him. Together with a friend he tries to open his own business—based on customer data illegally taken from the company he has worked for, he wants to build a sales network for outdoor advertising—but it fails almost immediately, for a suit and other external attributes of professionalism are not sufficient for making a profit on this demanding market.

Breivik then decides to try his hand in politics, he joins the youth organization of the right-wing Progress Party—established in the 1970s as a social movement opposed to excessive taxation and promoting populist neoliberal causes, but quite quickly transformed into a full-fledged political party, which besides free- market ideas also promotes national isolationism and is happy to use a more or less xenophobic rhetoric. Although Breivik spends several years in the Progress Party (he was a member from 1991 to 2006), he does not make a political career. After a few unsuccessful attempts at running for Parliament, increasingly frustrated and sensing a growing resentment and distance of other party members, he transfers his activity to Internet forums, where in a tone brooking no argument he proclaims his manifestoes and gives bossy advice to much more experienced politicians. In the same period he makes another attempt at gaining financial independence and starts a company selling… fake degrees of a non-existent university. Via the Internet he succeeds in attracting a quite big number of buyers, and although the website contains a note that the offer only has a collectors’ value, because of questionable legal status and functioning on the edge of legality he is forced to close it.

And this probably is the point where the disastrous sequence of events starts, culminating on July 22, 2011, when a bomb planted by Breivik in Oslo kills eight people, and 69 participants of the Workers’ Youth League summer camp are killed by him on the Utoya island, but before it happens, Breivik moves back to his mother and sits in his room for hours on end, fully immersed in the world of computer games and radical nationalist ideologies rampant on the Internet. For a few years he has virtually no contact with the outside world, and haunted by a vision of his coveted greatness, he composes more than a thousand pages long political creed, consisting mostly of texts copied and pasted from anti-immigrant and racist blogs and such exotic writings as the Unabomber manifesto. Racial and cultural purity becomes his profound obsession. He sees himself as standing at the forefront of resistance against the approaching disappearance of nation states, as the man who in the inevitable war between white and colored people will save the superior race from ultimate destruction. In order to start a global revolution, he prepares a plan of attack on the Workers’ Youth League, producing politicians who in his opinion are leading Norway towards the edge of an abyss. Not bothered by anyone, he registers a farm and carefully keeping a low profile, gradually buys firearms and materials needed for building a bomb. When on July 11 he leaves his car filled with explosives in front of the prime minister’s office and moves to the island of Utoya, nobody stops him. Although the police very shortly after the explosion have a detailed description of his appearance and the car he is using—a note with this information lies on the desk of an official—nobody makes use of this data. It takes hours for special forces to turn up on the island where Breivik perpetrated his methodical massacre. Shortly after, the Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg, delivers the famous speech in which he assures the public that Norway is not going to give up its values—liberalism, openness, egalitarianism. When the trial starts, the judge greets Breivik with a handshake and allows him to make fiery speeches.

“Esse est percipi,” said Bishop George Berkeley, and perhaps this principle helps us to understand the terrifying story of Anders Breivik, the man who wanted to make a name for himself through the use of the most horrible methods imaginable, and ultimately secured his place in history. Aware that fame is the last thing he deserves, Norwegians are reluctant to pronounce his name. Seierstad, although, as she writes, after long doubts she decided to use his real name, she does it in a peculiar way—until the massacre on the Utoya island she calls him “Anders” or “Anders Behring,” after the massacre he is just “Breivik.”

And the most important question posed by this book is exactly the question why nobody noticed Anders Breivik earlier. Why no institution, no community, no group ever accepted him? Why had he functioned on the periphery, for most of his life virtually unseen? And why was he not caught when on his way to Utoya? Why all the warnings which could help in stopping him were ignored? Why was he caught so late, when he had already fulfilled his plan and gave himself up? Is the excessively liberal Norwegian criminal law to blame? Or perhaps the dysfunctional welfare and educational institutions, which despite obvious signals virtually left Breivik to himself? Or perhaps we should point at such factors as atrophy of politicians, atrophy of democracy, within which there grow increasingly aggressive ideologies advocating violence, and the ideals of freedom of expression and freedom to profess your beliefs prevent effective eliminating such attitudes from the public sphere? Asne Seierstad’s book undoubtedly provides a useful material for reflection on all these issues.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website

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