My Opinion

One of Us: The Book You Need To Read

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in NorwayNever before have I had such a visceral sensation of my faith in humanity draining from my body as it did about three quarters of the way through Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. The previous day I watched my better half deep in our couch, her face covered in tears, forcing herself through the same section of the book that more than any other has changed me. In a section of the book covering over 100 pages, Seierstad recounts minute-by-minute in gruesome detail, the worst act of terrorism enacted on Norwegian soil since World War II. This attack left 77 people dead, most of them youth shot point-blank by a white right-wing terrorist. The story, of a confused man on a mission of terror, of young people cut down with bullets for believing in a fair and just world, and of a thousand things going wrong at the same time with the worst possible outcome, is equal parts terrifying and enraging. And out of the fear, anger, and sadness caused by reading it is a powerful sense of purpose in community: We must never let this happen again.

More than a document of terror, One of Us is a reflection of us: the society we’ve built, how we see and treat our fellow human beings, and how hatred and alienation, left unchecked, can lead people to do unspeakable things. One of Us is the story nobody wants to hear that everyone needs to be told.

Terror, by any other name…

In the years since that fateful day in 2011, I’ve resigned to the reality that outside Norway and Europe, these terror attacks and its perpetrator will be forever referred to as the “Oslo bombing” and “Utøya shootings,” perpetrated by a “mass shooter” or “lone gunman.” The terrorist ABB (whose name I will not dignify by using) does not fit the current understanding of the word “terrorist,” at least not in the eyes of North Americans. He is an “ethnic Norwegian” with blue eyes, blonde hair, and pink skin. A christian with right-wing conservative political views, he was the very essence of all that is considered “not a terrorist.” Except he built a bomb, blew up the government quarters, and shot 100 people, most of them several times, at close range, while dressed as a police officer, to start a war and protect Europe from a “Muslim invasion”. Had he been of any other ethnicity, any other faith, or hailed from any other nationality, “terrorist” would be the first word out of everyone’s mouth.

And it was, on the 22nd of July, 2011 when news first broke. I was at home in Vancouver, Canada, about to go to the gym, when my phone started pinging with updates from Norway about an explosion. Several of my friends worked in the government quarter and I spent the next hour trying to get a hold of them when Tweets started appearing from Utøya about shots being fired. At that time, all the major news networks were speculating about Al Quaeda’s involvement, but when it became clear that people were being killed on Utøya, it was equally clear that this was not Al Quaeda.

I spent the following hours on Twitter explaining to anyone who would listen that this must be a right-wing extremist group – that Utøya is a sanctuary for the Norwegian Labor Party’s youth movement. I was shouted down by countless Tweets who were later deleted, told I “knew nothing” about Norway, that terrorism is always perpetrated by Muslims, that this was “inevitable” and “fitting” because of Norway’s “naive” attitude toward Palestine and the Muslim world. When news broke hours later that the perpetrator was indeed a white ethnic Norwegian, the word used in the media changed from “terrorist” to “lone gunman” and everyone began grasping at familiar straws, about mental illness, coercion, sudden psychosis. The cognitive dissonance of being confronted with one of “us” being a terrorist was simply too strong. Meanwhile, in Norway the perpetrator was charged with terrorism and eventually convicted.

The Story of Us

When I finished the book I turned to Angela and said “I’m not sure it was a good idea to read this. I kind of regret it.” She had finished a few days earlier and responded “I think it’s made me a better person.” A few days later, I knew what she was talking about.

Coming out of the haze left by the intensity and brutal reality of what I had read, I felt my thoughts realigning. In a subtle way, it had guided my confused and frustrated thoughts about this event into a clearer understanding of not only what happened, but why, and to whom.

You see, One of Us is not only a book about the terrorist and his actions. It’s a book about the people he attacked, about the lives of those he affected, about the society he grew up in, about multiculturalism, hope, fear, loneliness, togetherness, love, and hate. Seierstad has done meticulous work piecing together the story of ABB from birth, through his radicalization, the attacks, the trial, and his current existence as a prisoner of the state with no hope of freedom. But she spends just as much time telling the stories of some of his victims, their rise through the political youth organization, their hopes and dreams, their tumultuous journey through the teenage years, and in one case, the all too common experience of being a refugee trying to fit in with a new culture.

Reading their stories, you become close to the people. They cease being abstractions tied to headlines from a country far away, turning instead into human beings. It is said we should not speak of the people who commit heinous acts of violence and terrorism but instead of their victims. Seierstad rides this line masterfully, and does so with sensitivity and care. They are not merely characters in a larger story. They are real people, with real lives, and they are just like you and me.

Perspective and acceptance

The book sparked many long discussions about the event. “What is so alarming to think about” Angela said, “is that this guy is the same age as you, from the same place. And had you not moved to Canada, you might have been there, right in the middle of everything.” This is true, and it makes it all the more real for us.

I spent much of my youth in and around Oslo, I walked through the government quarters on a regular basis, and aspired to work there some day just like several of my friends do today. I visited Utøya several times, I know people who went to school with the terrorist, one of the lead characters in the book lived a few kilometers from my parents house and went to my high school. Earlier this year, Angela and I visited the government quarter, where 5 years later the devastation from the bomb is still clearly visible.
This is where the challenge lies, for Seierstad and the book. To an international, and especially a North American audience, Norway is a mythical place of oil, socialism, lutefisk, and polar bears. It’s a weird place nobody visits and few can pin on a map without help, which only shows up in the media when something extraordinary happens. Norway and its culture is so foreign to North Americans that many passages in the book will seem absurd or otherworldly. Like the fact that the terrorist was offered a cup of coffee only minutes after being arrested. Or that police are not armed. Or that his mother was interviewed and released in short order. Or that he now serves a life sentence of 21 years in prison (to be extended indefinitely). To me, this all makes sense, but without the context of being Norwegian, or even European, I wonder if readers will find this too difficult to identify with and too hard to accept.

When I was first introduced to the book, it was through a similar feeling of bewilderment, described by a professor at the University of Oslo and friend of my brother. “It is ununfathomable,” he said, “just how badly prepared we were for this. Like the story of the boat. My Lord, the boat. What incompetence!”

In the aftermath of the attacks, questions were asked about why the police took so long to respond to the event, and why even after arriving at the shores of the lake that surrounds the island, it took an eternity for the police to apprehend the terrorist. This has become one of the centerpieces of Seierstad’s account, and it is the reason for the tears of frustration and incredulity felt by most readers. This is also the only place in the book where Seierstad’s otherwise expertly objective perspective falters and you see glimpses of her personal feelings. Like everyone else, she is incredulous, furious even. Because Norway was unprepared for this, and the police response (or lack thereof) played a large part in increasing the numbers of victims. As you read it, know that those questions you ask yourself, of how reports of an armed man walking away from a bomb and shootings at a summer camp can be ignored by 911 dispatchers, were and are asked by us all. And know that things have changed. But be equally aware that one reason the response took so long was the fact that this terrorist did not fit the expectation. Norway was unprepared for terror, but it was especially unprepared for terror from within.

So, before you pick up the book (and you should), prepare yourself. Norway is a small country with a far more relaxed attitude toward threats, real or imagined. It is perfectly normal for children to walk to school by themselves in the 1st grade, go on trips unsupervised by adults, and join political organizations that end up taking them away from school before they are 18. Education, even post-secondary education, in Norway is state funded and provided to everyone, and very few students drop out of high school. The politicians in Norway are just regular people with regular jobs. You see them walking on the street, going to movies, even shopping at the local store. Violent crime is exceptionally rare, and the criminal justice system is based on rehabilitation and restitution rather than punishment. It is a nation of builders and cooperators: Norwegians are trained to have “Dugnadsånd” or “dugnads spirit” (‘dugnad’ being an untranslatable word that means something like “coming together to do work for the betterment of the community without renumeration or reward”), and are a welcoming people who strive to see the best in everyone. But even in this seemingly idyllic utopia, there are strong undertones of discontent. One of the more popular political parties has been running on a platform of fear and hatred toward “foreigners” and stokes the fires of cultural purity and anti-islamism whenever they have the chance. And many Norwegians feel the government is too much of a nanny state and takes too much of their money.

Like all countries, Norway is complicated. But it is real, and to truly understand this book, you have to accept that life there in the northern part of Europe is fundamentally different from North America.

Once you’ve read the book, you should go on the web and look up some of the central characters. You’ll discover photos and videos of many of the victims and see what Utøya and the surrounding area is like. There is even video of the island only hours before the attack when former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland held a speech about multiculturalism, women’s rights, and the welfare state – all the things the terrorist wanted to destroy. Seeing the photos and watching the videos will make it all more real. Just be warned, there are many photos you’ll find on the web that you’ll wish you never saw.

What we can learn

Like I said earlier, more than anything else, this book is about us, the people who share this earth today. It’s about how our lives intertwine, how our society evolves, how walls and borders are broken down and rebuilt, and how our society is working to redefine itself in an ever more globalized world.

In a subtle but important way, it is also the story of the internet. And this is where I want to end this article. Seierstad makes a valiant effort to explain why the terrorist did what he did, but in the end only he will know. Though he is not clinically insane, his world view is so fundamentally distorted that it is hard for anyone who does not share his particular understanding of the world to comprehend his actions as anything other than insanity. Yet while reading this well documented account, it becomes impossible to ignore the reality that this was a premeditated act of political terrorism, planned and executed to enact lasting change in the structures of our society. He was not crazy. We need to dig further.

As someone who works on and with the web on a daily basis, it is this part of the story I find most chilling. ABB was self-radicalized on the internet. Through blogs, message boards, chats, and other tools, he slowly sank into one of the many echo chambers of hatred and extremism that thrive just below the surface of our common information source. After the attacks, I spent some time researching his sources and realized that while ABB may be the only person so far to have moved from ideas to violent actions, there are thousands, maybe millions of people on the web who agree with him. I like to say that the web is a veneer of amazing ideas covering an endless abyss of the worst of human nature. Follow ABB down the rabbit hole and you’ll realize the biggest threat to modern society is not religious fundamentalists from far away lands, but right-wing anti-government extremists from your own neighborhood. And unlike the “foreign threats” the news media falls over themselves talking about all day long, few talk of the seething hatred that is reaching a boiling point right in our midst – against feminists, against muslims, against atheists and socialists and women and trans people and gays and aboriginals and anyone who is not “just like us”. The biggest threat we face today is complacency about the hatred online. And the worst terror attack on western soil since 9/11 was committed by one of us.

My Opinion

It is not true – reflections on terror in Norway one year later

{Hit this link to see the rose photo on Flickr}

I have not been back to Norway in the year since the attacks. Far removed from the scene of the crime both then and now I have been buffered from the blunt force of what happened. But that remoteness has left me adrift. It is hard to put into words how I feel except to say something has been irreparably broken. These are my thoughts on the one year anniversary of the terror attacks in Oslo and on Utøya.

“It is not true that we are like animals”

These, the opening words of the song “Det er ikke sant (It is not true)” by Norwegian lyricist Odd Børretzen (freely translated by yours truly), were the first words that came to mind when I saw a post by my friend Stig on Facebook: “Trying to find the words for tomorrow’s sermon”. Stig is a minister in the Norwegian State Church, and like all Norwegians he was bracing for the first anniversary of the terror attacks and massacre of the 22nd of July 2011. His job, to guide his congregation through grief, disbelief and frustration and help them make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen, in our broken modern world. I don’t envy him.

In Colorado wounds have not yet begun to heal after a young man booby-trapped his apartment and opened fire on a crowd at a movie theatre. The police believe they have their man, but the reason for his attack remains a mystery. And even when it comes, if it comes at all, we will never fully understand it.

We want to write them off as crazy, these men; as animals out of control; as something distinctly other from ourselves. But they are not. They are us. And that is what scares me the most.

It is not true that we are like wild animals. So we need to stop acting like we are.

“It is not true”

Seeing the first pictures of a bombed out government square in Oslo on my cell phone that morning a year ago I was struck by a moment of disbelief. This can’t be true. Like most who have been in Oslo my first thought was that there are no gas lines or anything of that nature in the square, so something must have gone horribly wrong to cause such devastation. While that was processing I started counting the hours. Norway is nine hours ahead of Vancouver. That means this happened at between two and three in the afternoon. Which means my friends were likely at work. In those very buildings. Who works there now? Anders for sure. Jon. Karin. Torstein?
The urge to get on a plane right then and there was as uncontrollable as it was unfeasible. What has happened to everyone who was there?

The pictures kept pouring in through news reports and social media. I was struck by the relatively few people in the photos. Summer. Friday. Decent weather. People probably left work early. Maybe they are OK.

People start checking in. Anders shows up on Facebook saying he was halfway home when the explosion happened. Karin was at home. Torstein chimes in soon after. He crossed the plaza only minutes before the explosion and was just down the street when it happened. What about Jon? Do we know anyone else? A frantic effort begins, everyone reaching out through cell phones and social media. Hours later Anne checks in letting us know she and Jon are on vacation abroad. By that time things have gotten far worse.

“It is not true that we are driven by fear of all that is unknown”

Bizarre reports were coming in from Utøya. Of police shooting at kids. Of dead bodies in the water. Children tweeting from behind rocks and outcroppings, screaming for help over social media. Speculation rampant. CNN proclaimed Islamic terror in Norway, attributing the attacks to Norwegian military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. That made no sense. Utøya is AUF. It’s an island full of kids, members of the youth branch of the Labour Party. An unlikely target for terror. To me it was clear this was likely an act of a right wing extremist or nationalist, the bomb in Oslo an obvious diversion for the real attack.

I flashed back to my visits to Utøya. It’s small. You can walk its circumference in 30 minutes flat. It’s in a lake with ice cold water. It’s remote. It would be a shooting gallery.

I spent the day translating Norwegian news to English speaking followers on Twitter and Facebook, debunking conspiracies and speculations, contradicting North American media and their insistence that this must be an Islamic attack, making sure people understood the severity of what happened. Gillian from the Vancouver Sun called. CTV called. CBC called. CKNW called. I felt like the sole Norwegian in a world of chaos. I couldn’t eat. The island. The tent camp. The main house. The ice cold water. Nowhere to hide. What could I do? What would I have done?

“It is not true that we are like wild animals, blinded by instincts and fears”

Anders Behring Breivik. That was his name. A blonde, built, blue eyed Norwegian. Younger than me. Could be mistaken for one of my friends at a distance. Standard issue “ethnic Norwegian”. Loaded with explosives, guns, and a vision of the future divorced from reality. “The Lone Wolf” CNN decried. Not a terrorist: A “mass murderer”. Clearly deranged. Standard issue lunatic. If only the world was that simple. Breivik was neither the first nor the last of his kind. And though he left a longer list of victims than any single terrorist before him, he was not extraordinary. Breivik was our wake up call.

Too long has the Western world lulled itself in the delusion that terrorism is something enacted on us by others and that when it does come from the inside, it is still something foreign. The reality is sadly the reverse: Terrorism largely comes from the inside, is perpetrated by people like ourselves against us. The attack in Colorado just two days ago should be a stark reminder. But instead of calling it what it is we resolve the cognitive dissonance by applying labels to the perpetrators. “Insane”. “Mental health issues”. “Loner”. “Outsider”. “Radicalized”. These are not fitting labels for murderers. They are symptoms and diagnoses of societal defects.

People are not inherently evil. Even these people are not inherently evil. They are horribly misguided. They lash out at the world because they are not heard, because they want to change the world, because they believe that violence is a justifiable means of bringing the world in line with their beliefs. That’s not an excuse, and it does not justify their actions. It does however make it harder to write them off as anomalies and get on with business as usual.

“We are people”

A year has passed since a single man tore my world apart, and I’ve been trying to patch it up again ever since. Try as I might the tear will not heal fully, and I think that is a good thing. I have lived my life in the belief that provided enough information and a solid system of support, my fellow men and women will do the right thing and play their part in making this world a better place. I now realize we still have a long way to go for that to become a reality. Our connected and technologically evolved modern world has left humanity behind, replacing fact with fiction, science with doctrine and empathy with political dogma.

We have led ourselves astray leaving many to drift away from the group only to come back filled with hatred and contempt. But we can carve a new path for ourselves, one that can be followed by everyone. If we want to we can reclaim our humanity: reframe our conversations, our conventions, our religion and our politics to focus on what is best for all of us, not just for the individual.

We are not ants or wolves. But in some ways we are like them. In good ways. We are pack animals. We need each other. We work better as a group. And none of us should be left to wander alone.

It is not true. We are not ants or wolves.
We are people.
We want to whisper passionate words to each other
and search for each other
and caress each other in the darkness.

The wolves howl in the streets
later they stand in the broken glass and scream:
You are like us. You are wolves.
But it is not true.The last two verses of “Det er ikke sant” by Odd Børretzen

For another perspective check out the article Utøya and the love paradigm by my friend Michael Brønbo.

My Opinion

Last Friday … In Norway – my op-ed piece in the Vancouver Sun

“Last Friday a terrorist tried to kill my friends. With a bomb placed outside their workplace he voiced his political dissent in the most cowardly of ways: Through violence. In the hours that followed I reached out over the Internet, through email, Facebook and Twitter, to make sure they were OK. And they were. By random chance, the luck of the draw, by the tiniest of margins. One was on holiday. Another had gone home early. The third met a mutual friend in front of the building at 3:16 p.m., only 10 minutes before the bomb went off. They likely walked right past the terrorist. In an email to me later, one of them writes “It’s strange to think how close I was to waiting a bit longer.” The bomb went off as they turned the corner a block away, killing eight and wounding many more. The time was 3:26 p.m.”

Read the whole piece over at the Vancouver Sun.

Related: My reaction on the day of the attacs: Together is our only option and my ongoing Norway Q&A.

My Opinion

Your Questions Answered: Q&A About Norway

Watching online and international news coverage since the terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22nd it has become abundantly clear to me that people outside of Norway are having a hard time understanding our culture, our history and most importantly right now our reaction to what has taken place. I’m not particularly surprised by this – for outsiders, and especially North Americans – Norway must seem like a bizarre country where everything is turned on its head. And in many ways it is. Our culture, our politics and our attitudes towards social and political issues are fundamentally different to those of our fellow people on the other side of the Atlantic.

There is also a serious problem with translation. Norwegian is a notoriously complicated language with many dialects and two official and very different written languages. It is also a language that relies heavily on reference. Many words and sentences taken out of context lose their meaning completely and auto translation solutions like Google Translate often have a hard time making heads or tails of them. In addition there is a cultural translation barrier. Many words, when translated, turn into words with a different reference. And when that happens meaning is lost.

In an effort to help non-norwegians understand what is happening over there in my home country I will answer questions and find reference materials and links for anyone interested right here on this site. If you have a question, if you are looking for information or if you are confused about something, leave a comment below and I will make every effort to answer you. I’ll post all the questions and answers in this post as a running log so come back as it gets updated. I’ll also do the same for all questions asked through social media including Twitter (@mor10), Facebook and Google+ ( You can also send me a question directly through the contact form.

*Updated from the top*

Q: Do you think he wrote his “manifesto” himself? Is Roid Rage being talked about in the Norwegian press at all?

A: From reports it sounds like the manifesto is a patchwork of different content. In the preface he also says something to that effect. It is heavily littered with quotations from published authors and bloggers, some of it cut and paste, some in edited format. There is also a section, referred to as a “diary” that is clearly his own work. The last entry there is on July 22nd a few hours before the attacks. Some experts have said it is impossible that he could have written it all himself but I think it is the work of one person. As for roid rage there hasn’t been too much talk about it. Though he did take steroids he doesn’t look big enough to have gotten to that stage IMHO.

Q: What kind of camp took place on Utøya exactly?

A: The AUF summer camp is not a camp in the sense that most North Americans think of camps. It is a gathering of the regional members of the AUF (youth branch of the Norwegian Labour Party) to discuss and formulate policies. It is not as some have suggested an indoctrination camp run by the Labour Party to fill young minds with political propaganda. The Utøya camp is run by and for the members of the AUF and the AUF actually owns the island. A point of interest: Many of the policies and opinions held by the AUF and its members do not correspond to those of the parent Labour Party. There are often quarrels between the two and the AUF in general tends to be more radical and left wing than the Labour Party.

Questions by Cord Jefferson in preparation for his excellent article Why the Norway Shooter May End Up Serving a Life Sentence:

Q: As I understand it, Norwegian law says that nobody, regardless of crime, will be sentenced to longer than 21 years in prison

A: “Life in prison” in Norway is 21 years with a possibility of parole after half the sentence is served. However there is a discussion taking place that the terrorist will be tried for Crimes Against Humanity, paragraph 102, for which the maximum sentence is 30 years in jail. If he receives this maximum sentence he will be released after 30 years unless something changes.

An alternative is to send him into what is called “forvaring” or “containment”. This has a maximum length of 10 years but after this the courts can extend the containment in 5 year increments indefinitely.

The one thing that is a certainty is that there will be no reintroduction of the death penalty. Norwegians don’t consider the death penalty an actual penalty.

Q: Are you comfortable with the idea the perpetrator might only receive 21 years, or would you like to see something more severe? What is justice to you?

A: I am a strong believer in the Norwegian legal and penal system. The system focuses on rehabilitation and restoration, not just punishment and retaliation. Many a murderer has served his or her sentence and is now free to roam and contribute to society. And in all but the most unusual cases these people get on with their lives and are not a continuing problem. In an extreme case like this however I don’t see a future in which the legal system will let the accused out. I imagine they will find some way of keeping him locked up indefinitely under the current legal statute.

Am I satisfied with this? Assuming he is held until the end of his life at age 80, yes. This guy should be made an example of. He should sit in jail, preferably in solitude, and serve as proof that even though he committed the worst crime against the country since World War II, and even though he treated his victims inhumanely, we, the society, will still treat him as a human being. He should be held without visitation rights, without access to news, letters or anything else from the outside. He should be left to spend the next 40 years contemplating the fact that his actions didn’t lead to the outcome he wanted.

I think in all of this the key is that last sentence. We, as a society, have to make sure the acts of this man do not produce the results he was looking for. And to do that we need to treat him as the cowardly criminal he is: with humanity. I pity him for his lack of understanding of the human condition.

My Opinion

Together is our only option

Sun rising over smoky water in NorwayWhen 600 young minds gathered on an idyllic island to form policies and opinions about the future, their own and that of their country, the last thing on their minds was that that future would hold a rain of bullets, devastation, and death. In a short few hours in the late afternoon on a lazy summer Friday their world, and the world as a whole, changed forever. Lives were lost. Innocence was lost. The very fabric of reality seemed to tear, showing a glimpse of a harder, more brutal existence. One in which we fear our neighbours for what they might do to us. One where communities were built to protect us from “the other”. One in which force and violence was the only solution. The world of Hobbes, of Nietzsche, of the individual, alone in the masses.Only the tear was permanent. Burned into facades of buildings by a massive explosion. Ripped into the bodies of the next generation by bullets. Forever imprinted on our retinas as we watched in horrified disbelief.

Is this the world we live in?
Can this really happen?
This cannot happen.
This will not happen.

While the families of the countless victims of the worst terrorist attack in the history of Norway try to cope with their loss it is up to us to take stock. What is this world we live in where people kill? What have we become that makes us capable of such atrocities? What has our society become that the massacre of human lives seems just in the pursuit of an ideological goal?

We have lost our way. Not from God or Allah or Marx or Rand. We have lost our way from humanity. We have forgotten who we are and what we can do. We, the people, the only people, have the capacity for greatness. Yet we resort to petty quarrels over ideology, territory and possession. We have become greedy. Self righteous. Self absorbed. We have lost our way.

I am drawing a line in the sand. And I hope you will stand with me. This ends now.

From this day forth I will do my part to make things better, to make us better. I will speak up against violence. I will speak up against oppression. I will speak up against injustice. I will speak up against indifference. And I will speak up against those who use division and antagonism to pit one against the other, that use words like “us” and “them”, who draw the world in black and white. And I will help them see that division makes us half of a whole. That we are all in this together. No situation has a single cause and no cause has a single effect. In all our actions, no matter how small, wel play our part. And if we all make that part a positive one, one without prejudice, ideology or personal gain, we will all be better for it.

This is not a political manifesto, not a religious doctrine, not a moral dogma. This is humanity, pure and simple: Race, colour or creed we are all sisters and brothers, born of our mothers. We are in this together and together we must make it work.

Together is our only option.

NB: There is a memorial planned for anyone who wants to gather about this event at the Scandinavian Community Centre in Burnaby on Sunday July 24th at 12:30pm.

Scandinavian Community Centre
6540 Thomas St
Burnaby, BC
V5B 4P9