X Close

Norway confronts its Breivik demons The country has spent a decade failing to address what caused the attack

Friends mourn Breivik's victims in Oslo. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Friends mourn Breivik's victims in Oslo. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


July 22, 2021   7 mins

Every evening, long after he had been killed, Anders Kristiansen’s parents would go up to his room to light his bedside lamp, and then turn it off when it was time to sleep. They would lower the curtains when the midnight sun shone in summer and again when the northern lights flamed across the sky in the darker months. They would sit on his bed, letting their fingers slide over his clothes in the nearby closet, while the seasons changed outside his window.

On his desk they had found three badges. One declared: “Red and Proud”. Another: “No to all racism”. The third was the emblem of the Labour Party Youth, with white letters on red: “AUF”.

When Kristiansen’s body returned from the island Utøya, his parents dressed the 18-year-old in his first real suit, one they had bought together that very summer, pinning the badges through the fabric. Around him they wrapped the blue bedlinen she had weaved just before he left for the summer camp on Utøya. “Blue, blue like the sky,” he had answered when she asked what colour he wanted it to be. He had planned to move out to finish his last year of high school in Tromsø, the capital of Northern Norway, and hoped to take it with him.

And then, exactly a decade ago, on July 22, 2011, his life ended.

“Something is not right,” Kristiansen said when he heard through the walkie-talkie that a policeman had arrived on the island. He went to investigate. The last words he was heard screaming were: “Just run! Don’t look back!”

Kristiansen was one of ten teenagers found on the “Lovers’ Path” that loops around the island, his arm around a girl with long, curly hair. The eleventh on the path, the only survivor, later explained that when the shots came closer they had decided to lay down, pretending to be dead.

In the years after the terror attack, I followed the Kristiansen family for my book One Of Us, a study of both the neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and his victims. I was able to glimpse into the abyss that the bereaved were forced to endure for the rest of their lives. In Bardu, far above the Polar Circle, Anders’s mother, Gerd, showed me how dark it was down there, how cold, how lonely.

Death, in a way, fades into oblivion for those of us who aren’t close to it. We sweep away the abyss, brush it off and look away. Time creates an enormous distance between those who still grieve, and the rest of us. In the years after Breivik’s attack, I learned from the victims’ families that grief wants to be seen, to be remarked upon, to be recognised.

Still, I dreaded calling Gerd last week, after so many years since we last spoke. She taught me that the cardinal sin against a parent in mourning is not to mention the one who is no longer there, as if they had never existed. We avoid the subject because we are afraid to hurt, not knowing that the loss is so enormous that it needs to be shared.

Gerd was in a workshop when I called. She was ordering a bronze heart to put on Kristiansen’s grave for today’s anniversary. For years her pain has been mixed with anger. She was mad at the police, at the Government, at the Labour Party. It felt as if no one took responsibility for the children killed. Where were the secret services, the special forces, the police, the guards? Then she was frustrated with the marches, the outpourings on Facebook and the fact that she couldn’t scream out her pain in a society where you were supposed to show what they called dignity.

“This is a coup d’état”, Breivik told the policeman sitting on top of him when he was finally apprehended on the island. His killing spree had then lasted for more than an hour. Around him lay 69 of his victims. Marxist hunter, read a badge on his chest. Still on the island, he told the police that the children around him were far from innocent. “They are extreme Marxists. Marxist spawn. It’s the Labour Party, the youth wing. They’re the ones with power in Norway. They’re the ones who have presided over the islamisation of Norway.”

Meanwhile, other officers were looking for survivors. Kristiansen’s comrade Viljar Hanssen was found nearby, assumed to be dead. Parts of his brain lay bare, some of it outside his cranium. His eyes were a bloody mess. Somehow, a policeman found a pulse; he put the boy’s brain back into his broken skull and wrapped a cloth around it. The 17-year-old woke from a coma ten days later, missing an eye, the fingers that had tried to shield his face from the bullets, parts of his shoulder and many friends. Fragments of the bullets were so ingrained in his brain that they couldn’t be removed.

Ten years on, Viljar studies law in Tromsø. In his mind, he still discusses politics with his best friend Kristiansen. “Whenever I take important decisions, he’s with me, sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree,” he tells me from his parents’ hut in the mountains of Valdres.

It has been a dark decade for Viljar. First, he had to recover from his injuries, his angst and adapt to his glass eye and hand prosthesis. Then, he says, he was supposed to be grateful to be alive, without showing anger or remorse. But the heaviest burden throughout the years has been the ongoing harassment. Especially online, particularly from middle-aged men. “Breivik should have finished his job”, one wrote. Another wished for Viljar to be forever and continuously sodomised by Breivik. They criticised his liberal immigrant policies, however mainstream they were.

As the tone of the public debate hardened, Viljar broke down and stepped away from politics. Ten years after Utøya, a generation of politicians are gone. “Few survivors are politically active now,” Viljar says. “That is no coincidence.”

The Labour Party was in power when Breivik attacked, and a tearful Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg insisted that Norway would never give up its values and let the terrorist win. “We will answer hatred with love,” he said, and urged for “more democracy, more openness and more humanity, but never naïveté”. He was applauded across Norway for his leadership following the attack. But now that rosy picture has started to crack.

What seemed right at the time — to show unity — has stood in the way of important political discussions, such as the need to confront far-Right views and extremist opinions. When AUF has suggested that Breivik’s views are not only found on the internet, but resemble words that are spread even by parliamentarians on the Right, they have been ignored. When they have asked Right-wing parties to take a stand against racism, they have been accused of wanting to restrict freedom of speech. Anders Breivik has been considered an anomaly, rather than someone symptomatic of a broader far-Right movement. For that reason, he has not been mentioned in debates about immigration, integration or racism in Norway. Until now.

But something has started to change in recent months, as an avalanche of young Labour supporters have decided that enough is enough. “The attack was politically motivated,” writes former general secretary of AUF Tonje Brenna in her new book, it was “not a natural disaster!” After revealing the awful emails, letters, text messages, phone calls and social media posts she has received, she states that Breivik was not alone in hating the Labour Party, “nor in wanting us dead”.

“This is the last chance to make a stand,” Viljar echoes ahead of the anniversary. “That window will close now. The next rounds will be taken by historians.” In recent years, Viljar made a gradual return to politics and holds a Labour seat in the city parliament of Tromsø. Though he carries a burden heavier than most; if the fragments in his brain move even the slightest — from a hit, a fall or by themselves — his main artery could be ruptured. The closest fragment lies just three millimetres away.

When I spoke to Jens Stoltenberg last week, his voice cracked a little when he greeted me. I asked him immediately about this summer’s debate: “What was right then, and what is right now? What has changed?”

Stoltenberg — who left Oslo when he became the current General Secretary of Nato in 2014 — acknowledged that “until now the AUF has carried the heaviest burden”. It is a fact that clearly pains him. He was only fourteen years old when he became a member of the Labour Party Youth, and visited Utøya every year once he turned fifteen. “The debate is broader now; it has more voices. That is good,” he says.

But he was reluctant to say whether his decision to answer hatred with love — to indirectly de-politicise the attack — was wrong. “As the years have passed, I have become more conscious about how important it is to seek answers why the terror hit us,” he says. “It was indeed a targeted attack on the Labour Party and AUF. The terrorist wanted to change our country with violence. Therefore, it was also an attack on Norway.”

I tell him of Gerd’s grief. “I remember Anders,” he recalls. He met Gerd and her husband at a gathering three days after the attack, when their son was still just registered as “missing”. Stoltenberg remembers how he hugged them, and how he struggled to find the right words, afraid of saying anything wrong.

“We lost some of our finest young people and the Labour Party’s greatest talents that day,” he says. “The finest thing we can do for them is still to talk about July 22nd and stand up for the values they believed in, and fight so that it doesn’t happen again.”

For my part, whenever I’m asked about how Norway has changed since the Breivik attack, I’ve often compared it to a wound that has healed but leaves behind a scar. It still hurts, but Norway’s functions are not affected. Terror didn’t change us, unlike the attack on the US on September 11th 2001, which set off two wars within two years and leading to further radicalisation, the growth of ISIS.

But I have come to realise that it’s not as simple as that. For just like a wound that becomes re-infected if it’s not opened and cleansed, Norway is now suffering from its decision to shy away from asking uncomfortable questions; its failure to address the root causes of the Breivik attack.

“You know, I’ve had two guys by the name of Anders fighting in my head. One kind, one mean,” Gerd tells me. “The mean one was stuck in my brain so I couldn’t find my child. How he tormented me!” she exclaims. “It still bugs me that he breathes,” she says. “That he gets an hour of fresh air every day.”

“By the way, they don’t carry the same name,” she adds. “Our boy’s name is Anders.” She pronounces the name in her Northern dialect, with stress on the A, and a hard d. She then pronounces Breivik’s first name in a cosmopolitan Oslo accent, with a light A and a mute d. “And apart from the spelling, they had nothing in common,” she concludes.

Gerd still weaves, and now even she owns her own loom. “We got money for Anders,” she says, referencing the victim compensation payment she received. “It was gruesome. I had my child in my bank account.” Then she spent it on a loom and the money stopped aching.

One evening recently, she went up to his room where his clothes still filled the shelves. One by one, she gathered his pairs of jeans, a dozen in total, carried them down to the cellar and took out her scissors. Gently she cut them up, trying to make the shreds as long as possible. Some dark blue, some stonewashed and light, almost white. The shreds piled up on the floor and she spent time arranging the colours. Then she lay the warp and started weaving.

Blue, blue like the sky. The colour she had thought she could never weave with again as her child lay dead in the blue linen, wrapped around the suit and the badges. Red and Proud. No to all racism. AUF.    


Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning Norwegian journalist specialising in conflict and extremism. Her book about the Utøya massacre, One of Us, was published in 2015.

AsneSeierstad

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

23 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Hindman
MH
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

I find this article disgusting. It is shameless emotional manipulation where the author focuses in detail about the actions of a depraved and evil man and tries to conflate sympathy for the victims of the tragedy to sympathy for her cause. Then she acts like anyone who disagrees with her is little different than him. Åsne Seierstad does little to even explain what political disagreements are even occurring in her country. All she does is claim that all those who have different opinions from her are racists, murderers, and neo-(you know).

Bernard Hill
BH
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

…Exactly, for those born into homogeneous communities/ethnicities, and who’s personality type includes strong “disgust” for outsiders, the failure by political “liberals” to acknowledge that restrictions on foreigners need to be discussed and negotiated, is a major justification for extremism. The Taliban, ISIS etc., would appear to have many Breiviks in their midst.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bernard Hill
Matt Hindman
MH
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Ah, so you are one of those. Shameless emotional manipulation? Check! Bare bones argument where little background is given? Check! Assumes it does not need to go into the political background of the issues? Check! Pretends like it is talking about policy when it will not even be specific? Check! Going into pornographic detail about a tragedy? Check! Rambling and unfocused? Check! Dealing with an internet idiot who accuses others of being a racist for criticizing a manipulative, incoherent, and poorly written article that a high school teacher would throw out? Double check!

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Agree, Matt.
I thought it was going to be a cogent analysis if that were possible. Instead it seems to suggest the answer is more politics but only of her approved kind.

Jonathan Andrews
JA
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I think you’re being unfair. The comments she reports that a survivor received from some far right nutters were so depraved that it should give us pause.

My default position is that we should not shut down the speech even of the far right but sometimes people can be so cruel that I doubt that.

Yes, the article is emotive and biased and it’s clear she would probably support hate speech laws but it’s a reflection on a tragedy so terrible that I think this reasonable.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I think hate speech laws and the continued proscription of allowed opinions is part of what drives people like Breivik in the first place. Ban hate speech laws and get used to more speech, being offended, being debated.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Glad I’m not the only one thinking this.
Nobody in their right mind would condone Breivik’s actions, and it is most certainly essential that people try to understand why it happened. Which this article certainly doesn’t even scratch at.
The author doesn’t so much tap into the emotions of the victims as wallows in them. It distils these poor people’s tears and begs the readers to drink them to purify themselves – because anyone who doesn’t must be the same as Breivik and evil, evil evil right wing.
Nor does this offer any actual information as to why it may have happened. Nothing practical and realistic to tell us about the continued threat from people such as Breivik, that she suggests are everywhere. She accuses Norway of:

 its failure to address the root causes of the Breivik attack.

But offers no root causes herself either. Perhaps less time coddling bereaved families and more time doing some investigative journalism instead?

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

‘The country has spent a decade failing to address what caused the attack’
This article, ironically, fails in the exact same way. A deeper analysis is required on the Labour Party’s immigration policies and the resultant changing social fabric of Norwegian society.. rather than just ‘the Labour party are noble and correct, and anyone who disagrees is a far right neo-Nazi.. because Breivik!’

Last edited 2 years ago by Hersch Schneider
Thomas G
TG
Thomas G
2 years ago

Agree. I was expecting some discussion on the Great Replacement theory, as Breivik was into that. Nada.

David Nebeský
DN
David Nebeský
2 years ago

“Breivik’s views … resemble words that are spread even by parliamentarians on the Right.”
And Norwegian Labor Party views resemble words of Joseph Stalin. So what? Resemblance is not an argument for a decent and rational discussion.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

Well said.

Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

What a crap article. It clarifies nothing. After reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali book Prey, I suspect Scandinavians are experts in ignoring problems. That’s why in a country that is a member of NATO there wasn’t a helicopter available in Oslo! A Pollyanna view of life inspires Norway to receive thousands of Muslins immigrants with little education and with appalling beliefs. The far-right operates under the nose of Scandinavian authorities; they don’t even do a good job pretending. One thing though is the same everywhere in Europe, the moral superiority of the Social democrats. They might talk but they don’t listen. They don’t listen to the Muslim immigrants and don’t take them seriously, they don’t listen to people that criticized their perfect immigration policy and brand them as far-right and of course, they don’t listen to the far right either. Reality avoidance. That’s the new article the author should write, she seems to excel at it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Very well put! The Scandinavians are naive about a key reason for their success – they are, were at least remarkably homogeneous societies by world and European standards, with the exception of some discrimination against the Lapps. The Left there have a very naive view on how easy it is yo integrate meaningfully high numbers of immigrants, especially young men, from entirely different and very illiberal societies.

Arild Brock
Arild Brock
2 years ago

BREIVIK‘S MOTHER AND THE MISSING FATHER
„Important events do not always have important causes”. This was uttered by the Norwegian philosopher and social scientist Jon Elster shortly after the 22. July assassinations (which I think is the right noun) in 2011. I am not sure if Breivik should be considered an important person. His decision (and ability) to do the assassinations had tragic immediate consequences – and it was thus important – but he and his person should perhaps not be attributed importance.
But of course one would like to look for anything beyond Breivik’s person that could offer an explanation. Two kinds of explanation could be of interest: Possible lack of adequate police (and other) protection and anything beyond Breivik’s person that might positively have influenced his atrocious deed. Seierstad finds something which is of the latter kind, but with a little of the first too. She finds some explanation in scepticism against prevailing immigration policy. I guess the consequence of this explanation would be to stamp down harder on criticism against prevailing immigration policy. She and her political associates could then hope that this criticism will die and that no new Breivik can emerge without such political views in existence.
If Norway has failed to deal with the assassinations, however, I think the failure is another one. There are other things to be found in society than scepticism to immigration policy and which may have influenced the planning and enactment of Breivik’s atrocious deed. Breivik grew up with what we could call a dysfunctional mother and without his father. This does not excuse Breivik’s deed – as long as Breivik is considered accountable (and he was found legally accountable). But even when no excuse: If the circumstances around Breivik’s upbringing are likely to have influenced his deed, and reflect general traits in society, such circumstances would certainly be of interest.
This is what Seierstad misses out completely. In the months after the assassinations Breivik’s childhood, which includes a dysfunctional mother fighting successfully to keep the father out of the child’s life, had some attention in Norway. The social-democratic society Norway had a great chance to review its family policy in the case of a divorce. But that did not happen. This is where, in my opinion, Norway failed. One detail: Breivik’s father wrote a book which nobody would publish.
Extrapolating this argument you can look at the position of masculinity in Norway and other European countries. If there is such a thing as “toxic masculinity” – you should not mix up that with masculinity in general. Indeed, we need sane masculinity in order to keep “toxic” masculinity down, to keep “toxic femininity” down too, and to keep society running in general. Among other things we need borders, which you can recognize as masculine.  If we restore the position of masculinity, we would have less of the perverted “toxic” one and we might even have a better border/immigration policy.
(Norwegian citizen living in Germany) 

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

What is really sinister to me, and no one has ever raised, is that all these young people were on a summer camp for left wing activists rathe reminiscent of another political youth organization from the 1930s

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Yew maybe the explanation is that Breivik thought he was a hero pre-emptively saving the world from a future Hitler where white Norwegians were the new Jews.

David Nebeský
DN
David Nebeský
2 years ago

The youth organization you write about is known to everyone and it only operated for 19 years before 1945. However, there was very similar, equally evil but MUCH larger youth organization that operated from 1918 to 1991 and that is not so well known in the West – Komsomol.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

As little as I admire Jacinda Ardern, who now presides over a New Zealand housing crisis, she made the right call in not using the name of the Christchurch shooter. I wonder is it wise therefore to continue to use the name of the Utoya shooter, and to reproduce this image of him giving a kind of military salute? Surely we can discuss his ideas and motivations without giving him what the Iron Lady would call the oxygen of publicity?

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I’m not sure why a ’cause for the attack’ must be found. That implies that if x Internet page or book were not available it wouldn’t have ‘made’ Breivik do it. It’s looking to blame something or someone to assuage feelings of grief or guilt. But he’s one man. In populations of millions you’re always going to get a few NUTBAGS, it’s a statistical certainty.

Lawrence Bennett
LB
Lawrence Bennett
2 years ago

July 22, 2011 was a day of barbarous atrocities in Oslo and on Utoya Island. It was also a day of supreme heroism; Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, a lesbian couple, braved the gunfire in their boat to rescue 40 young people from the waters around Utoya Island. Their valor has largely been ignored in the media.
Lawrence Bennett

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

Thanks for the info – but I fail to see the relevance of these 2 heroic figures’ sexuality. Would you expect a lesbian couple to be less – or more – heroic than any other couple?

Cheryl Jones
CJ
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Breivik is a loon, no doubt. But when it comes to Islam, and the shameful appeasement of it by our governments, there’s no smoke without fire.

Lawrence Bennett
LB
Lawrence Bennett
2 years ago

Reply to Roger Inkpen
Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen’s rescue of the 40 children was not reported by major media in the massive coverage of that day’s events on Utoya Island. When it was reported in gay media, subsequent mea culpas in mainstream media acknowledged that the couple’s sexuality was a factor in the failure to report the women’s courageous actions.
Lawrence Bennett