17 December 2012

Letters from Oslo

Julia Grønnevet covered the trial of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and wrote about her courtroom experience for our new issue. Breivik, who was convicted in August of killing seventy-seven people in an Oslo bombing and shooting attack on Utøya Island, insisted that he wanted to be found sane and guilty rather than not guilty by reason of insanity. Grønnevet describes how a society still living in the shadow of World War II struggled to deal humanely with one of the worst expressions of contemporary European xenophobia. (Breivik considered his attack a defense of native Norwegian culture against Muslim immigrants’ incursions.) We’re posting this piece at a time when Americans are reckoning with another terrible act of mass violence, and we hope that the work of a mind grappling with sadly similar circumstances will provide something like solace.

April 22

Tomorrow is Monday and the start of week two of the Breivik trial. I’m covering it for the Associated Press. This time last week I was biting my nails and packing all the wrong things in my bag. Now I know to bring twice as big a lunch as any normal day would require, snacks, a big bottle of water (unopened from the store), my more robust computer power cord, and good luck charms. It bothers me a lot that I can’t find my favorite talisman, a gold souvenir coin from the Sacré Coeur in Paris. 

Anders Behring Breivik in court is a still and compact man. He wears a dark suit and over the past week has sported three different ties. The large tie knot he favors doesn’t look out of place on him, with his broad frame. When he sits in the witness box, he leans backward and his hands hang straight down in an unnatural position. When I first saw him, on a broadcast in the courthouse pressroom, I asked my editor, who was seated in the courtroom, if Breivik was shackled to his chair. Later, when the prosecutors started asking him questions, Breivik brought his hands up onto the little witness box desk, and I was able to see that he wears French cuffs but appears to be missing his cuff links.

The courtroom is laid out something like a Quaker church. Three unequal rows of pews come together to create a small open space, where the witness box faces the judges’ dais. Two black-robed professionals sit with three lay judges at their sides. Between the judges and the witness, facing outward like the judges but at floor level like the rest of us, sit the four psychiatrists who evaluated Breivik’s mental state. Working in pairs, they came to opposite conclusions about whether he is fit to be held responsible for his crimes. 

He is so fair you can barely see his eyebrows. He blinks and flutters his eyes in an uncomfortable way, as one might to adjust contact lenses. His face appeared so immobile while the prosecutor, Inga Bejer Engh, read the charges against him that he reminded me of a newborn. You know the look, when they’re too immature to consciously form expressions: they’re blank except for the little frowns and smiles that flit across in twitches. Engh, who at 41 is beginning the case that most likely will define her career, takes a teacherly, somewhat exasperated tone when she questions Breivik. She often places her right palm flat across her collarbone as she listens.

The charges against Breivik include the murder of eight people who died when he set off a homemade bomb in central Oslo, which wrecked several government ministries, and the attempted murder of nine more people who were seriously injured in the blast. After setting off the bomb, Breivik put on a police uniform he had bought piece by piece on the internet and drove thirty-eight kilometers to the ferry between the mainland and Utøya Island, where a Labour Party youth retreat was being held. The ferry captain believed Breivik was a police officer and took him to Utøya; several people there for the retreat helped him ashore, with his heavy case of ammunition, and became his first victims on the island.

Breivik is charged with the murder of sixty-nine people on Utøya, sixty-seven of whom he shot and killed and two who died while attempting to escape him. One drowned, one fell to his death. He is charged with the attempted murder of thirty-three more people who were shot but survived. He is charged with terrorism, and it is the first time this charge has been used in connection with a homicide in Norway. 

Throughout the first week I sat in the pressroom, while my editor and another AP reporter were in the courtroom with Breivik. I didn’t envy them. I was nervous enough being in the same building as the guy. One time he became a bit defensive during questioning, when Engh asked him who gave him the authority to kill all those people. He grabbed the pitcher of water on the table before him and started fiddling with its plastic cap. I lost focus as I watched his hands twist the cap, tuning out his voice as he uncharacteristically struggled to phrase himself. I felt that he was about to smash the pitcher on the table and use a shard to slit his own throat, suddenly, like in Michael Haneke’s Caché. I had to take a deep breath and look away for a second. When I looked back, Breivik was sipping water from a white plastic cup and calmly answering Engh’s question.

This anxiety about what might happen next grows in me the more I study Breivik. At the beginning of the week I watched him avidly, taking notes on his tie and his cuffs, and by the end when he fidgeted I flinched. I think I crossed the line between “interested and disdainful” and “compulsively fascinated and scared” on the second day, when Breivik took the stand. Before his hour-long prepared monologue, his actions spoke for themselves as the work of a madman. Afterward, it was possible to consider his actions from his perspective and see that they made a sort of sense. 

Breivik believes that Norwegians are Christians and Norwegian Muslims are foreign. These two groups are locked in conflict: one must destroy the other. A third group comprises the Norwegian “collaborationists,” who are facilitating the extermination of all that is good and Norwegian by allowing Norway to become multicultural. This group includes in particular anyone connected to the Labour Party, which since World War II has encouraged Muslim immigration and suicidally indoctrinated Norwegians into multiculturalism by making May 1 a national holiday, teaching the song “Children of the Rainbow” in public schools, and silencing cultural conservatives by saying they lost legitimacy after World War II. Breivik also calls the collaborationists “cultural Marxists” and sees them as acceptable targets in the war.

Breivik gave his speech from the witness box, seated and reading from a sheaf of notes. A judge interrupted him several times after he exceeded his allotted half-hour, but he went on, insisting, just a bit more, this is important.

“I stand here today as a representative of the Norwegian and European resistance movement. When I speak, I speak on behalf of many Norwegians who don’t want the rights of our indigenous population to be taken away from us. Norwegian media and the prosecution have claimed and will continue to claim that the reasons for the attacks I carried out were a coincidence and that I am a pathetic and evil loser, that I have no integrity, that I’m a notorious liar, lack morals, am insane and that I’ll therefore be forgotten by other cultural conservatives in Europe.

“I of course am not surprised by these characterizations. I expected this and wrote it down ahead of time, and it’s turned out I was right. But it’s important that everyone understand why the journalists, lawyers, and even the prosecutor in this case will continue to lie about me. The answer is simple. I have carried out the most spectacular attack committed in Europe since World War II.

“About 30 percent of Norwegians and Europeans are against multiculturalism. But not a single news service represents our view. In reality, 30 percent of news services should take our side and represent our view. More and more, cultural conservatives realize that democratic struggle is useless. It’s impossible to win when there’s no true freedom of expression. When more people realize this over the next decades, the path to taking up arms will be short.”

Breivik had plans to bomb a national journalism conference. He wanted to chop off the head of a former Labour Party leader with a sword while reading an al Qaeda–inspired declaration of war and broadcasting the event on YouTube. He wanted to kill Barack Obama during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but security was too tight. When I think about what he didn’t do I feel the shakiness of someone who has dropped something valuable and grabbed it back out of the air at the last instant. What did not happen is in some sense more accidental than what did.

Tomorrow I leave the pressroom and enter the court. The other reporters are not a particularly collegial group — there’s been a lot of shoving and antisocial breaking of the cell-phone rules — but it has protected me so far to be among them. Every now and again, when Breivik says something unambiguously bonkers, the pressroom erupts in laughter, and it feels good to be part of an “us” against him. On the second day, he singled out a reporter by name and said she “feels such a hatred against our cultural heritage that she chose to convert to Islam and spawn Berber-Arabic offspring with a Muslim.” There was baffled laughter in the pressroom as we sought one another’s eyes to make sure we had heard him correctly. Of course we had.

April 30

Second week of the trial, and it feels like it has gone on forever and will keep going on forever. I have the beginnings of a routine. I wake up before my alarm clock, have coffee and muesli, and hop into clothes laid out the evening before. I take the tram and go through courthouse security. It’s almost like airport security but not quite, so newcomers (bereaved people, mostly) always lose some object on their way in while I’m standing with my shoes in one hand, computer in the other, tapping my feet, waiting to go through the detector. I’ve discovered that my black oxfords set it off even though they have no visible metal, but my turquoise ones don’t. I’ve stopped wearing a bra because the underwire makes the machine beep and then I have to be invasively wanded. I take my jacket off before they request it and show them the seal on my water bottle without being asked. I show them the sandwiches in my metal lunch pail so they can be assured they’re not explosives. I hang the gigantic orange and red pass around my neck and let one police officer inspect it and two court security people optically scan it before I settle into my front-row seat and wait for the rest of the cast of characters to trickle in. I plug in my power cord, place my tin of Italian licorice in line with the grain of the wood desk, and log in to Gchat so I can communicate with my editors, who are scattered all over Scandinavia. The session starts at precisely 9 am, or sometimes even a minute or two early.

The purpose of this trial is to have a reckoning with Breivik, to go through his actions and try to understand them. What happened, how did those kids die, and why? There is also the problem of deciding an appropriate sentence — either sanity and an initial term of twenty-one years in a penal institution (likely followed by many more) or insanity and commitment to a mental ward.

When the trial date was set last year, no one knew that psychiatry would play such an important role in this reckoning. But then the first psychiatric report — which found that Breivik is a paranoid schizophrenic, was psychotic at the time of the attacks, and is unfit for a prison sentence — was leaked to the press. Public outrage about these findings was so intense that the court took the exceptional measure of appointing a second team of psychiatrists. The second team observed Breivik for several weeks in pretrial detention and released their report just before the trial started: they found that he had antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder but did not meet the insanity threshold. And so the two teams of psychiatrists sit beside each other in court, and the insanity question sits awkwardly next to the moral culpability question. 

In a normal criminal case, it would be considered favorable for the defendant to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But Breivik has said that finding him insane would be a way to avoid engaging with his politics, and has insisted that his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, above all try to convince the court that he is sane. This makes the prosecution’s task even more complex. We assume that they will argue for finding Breivik insane, since they opposed having him reevaluated after the first psychiatric report. But they have made no announcement, and may not declare which sentence they are seeking until the final moments of the trial. 

The two prosecutors, Engh and Svein Holden, took turns grilling Breivik about his motivations, his execution of the attacks, and his thoughts about what he did. They also asked him how he manages to appear so calm and unaffected. Bushido meditation, he said. Some think he simply feels no emotions. The alternative is that he is maintaining an almost superhuman self-control. In response to questions about specific victims, he often was able to reel off how many times he fired at them and where on their bodies he shot them. He had a rifle and a pistol, a Glock. He used the latter “from ten centimeters away to ten meters.”

Breivik took us through his actions on Utøya, his voice calm and smooth, unbroken by ums or ahs.

“I guess I went in an eastern to western direction, and it was just a coincidence that I saw a head sticking up from that pump house. Then I understood there were many people there, and then I caught sight of more people. And I think I started by saying, ‘Have you seen him? Do you know where the shots are coming from?’ and then one of them pointed in a direction. And that was to lure them out so I could execute them. And then they’re maybe five meters away, five to seven meters away. And then I said, ‘There’s a boat to take you to safety over there,’ I think I said. And then . . . they seemed very skeptical. But some, two or three of them, seemed very relieved. . . . And then I said, ‘Yes, you have to come now.’ And then three of them came towards me, and then I raised the Glock and shot a woman in the head.”

Thursday’s testimony consisted of more witnesses to the bombing, which would not have justified another Breivik story for the AP. But I had heard there would be a demonstration where people would sing Lillebjørn Nilsen’s “Children of the Rainbow,” a version of Pete Seeger’s “My Rainbow Race,” the song Breivik thinks is part of a Marxist plot to brainwash Norwegian kids into being multiculturalists, and an editor suggested that I go and write about it.

I grew up in Bergen and only moved to Oslo a few months ago, so I don’t know the first thing about the city. I had to look at a map to find the place where the demonstration was being held, and it turned out to be only two long blocks from the courthouse. When I arrived, I saw that it was the same big square my cousin, her boyfriend, and I had crossed every night walking home from a summer music festival in 2004. After the shows wrapped up, we walked an hour back to my cousin’s house through the dark, warm streets, always stopping at 7-Eleven for chewy chocolate cookies. There’s a natural place for a stage at one end of the square, and one had been erected there for the demonstration.

I kept busy walking around the square, chatting with people, with my Dictaphone and notebook, until I heard Lillebjørn tuning up. The clumps of people who had been there when I arrived had turned into a crowd of tens of thousands. It felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, except there was no pushing or shoving. It started raining, but no one left, and when everyone began singing they were magically on key, the way large crowds always seem to be. 

Almost all the singers were dressed in sensible rain gear, with boots and hats. A woman in a wheelchair had arrived with a special rain cover already stretched over herself and her chair. There were many groups of kindergartners in fluorescent vests. Construction workers in safety gear mingled with the rest of the crowd. The scene looked like a panorama from Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, my favorite picture book as a child. Many people carried roses, which until last July were a symbol of the Labour Party, but since then have come to represent peace and national unity. I found it all so moving that I stopped and stared for a while, before returning to duty and gathering quotes from the police doing crowd control.

I returned to the pressroom to write up the story, with the song going around and around in my head. “A sky full of stars . . .” Like Breivik I learned it in elementary school (along with “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which my class learned when Nelson Mandela was released from prison), but unlike Breivik I never thought about its multicultural message. It was just background, one of a million attitude-building things I learned in elementary school — not to be racist and not to litter, how to write in cursive and eat according to the food pyramid. As a kid, and perhaps still, I was much more concerned about environmental degradation than racism. The song has a line about how some people think we can live off “synthetic food.” That was the only line that meant anything to me, until this mass killer made me see the whole text with fresh eyes.

I had to stay late at the courthouse waiting for edits, until only a few other foreign correspondents were left hanging around. We talked about the breathtaking sweetness of the singing. None of us had managed to find a curmudgeon to provide some balance for our articles. “The Norwegians!” the AFP guy said with awe in his voice. “They’re like panda bears!” It was good to hear him express the same amazement and bit of alienation I had felt about the crowd’s unrelenting goodness. “Yes!” said the SvD guy. “They’re like seal cubs!” and he mimed a clubbing motion. We all laughed rawly. Eight more weeks to go.

May 6 

Sunday in the land where it doesn’t get dark anymore — 6 pm and it looks like noon outside. I spent the afternoon at my cousin’s house, battling my interminable laundry problem. Norwegians have figured out many things but laundry isn’t one of them. Almost everyone owns a washing machine, so there are no laundromats, but no one owns a dryer! Instead everyone dries their clothes on flimsy drying racks, and this takes so long that these racks are out on display all the time, even though they’re constructed so that you can fold them away. It mystifies me why Norwegians, who tend to arrange their lives for maximum convenience, treat laundry as though it were a passing issue. It looks terrible to leave underwear and socks on display in one’s living room, yet the design-loving Norwegians tolerate this or rather appear not to see the drying rack or hear it rattling as they attempt to edge their way around it. I don’t have a washing machine, so every weekend I stuff a canvas bag full of clothes and take it to my cousin’s house. The wash cycle alone takes two hours. My clothes have never been cleaner.

Norway: a group of bearded men on paternity leave sitting around an outdoor table, sipping early-afternoon pints, surrounded by strollers. Norway: so efficient people get anxious when the streetcar is two minutes behind schedule. Norway: extremely expensive coffee at cafés and cured moose sausages at the grocery store. They’re tasty in a gamy way — I’m nibbling one as I write this. This country, even though I’m from here, seemed richly exotic to me when I returned after several years in New York, but now I sense myself becoming more Norwegian again with every day that passes.

Last Friday, as I started a story on how Norwegian Muslims feel about the Breivik circus, I spoke to an imam who invited me to meet his congregation after Friday prayers. I followed my Google Maps directions to his mosque, one of the largest in central Oslo, and was sent down a street, Tøyengata, that with its long row of Pakistani and Indian shops looked just like 74th Street in Jackson Heights. The sidewalk was crowded with people running errands after work, almost all of them African or South Asian; it was disorienting to see a native Norwegian here and there, tugging a blond kid dressed in wool and the special waterproof playsuit Norwegian children wear. The congregants were mostly Sufi Muslims of Pakistani origin, and they were even more outraged than most Norwegians that Breivik might be found insane. To them this would represent a failure to acknowledge that terrorism can be perpetrated by people claiming to defend the West. “Nobody questioned Osama bin Laden’s sanity,” one man said.

This Friday I arrived in court to find a human-sized gray doll on a stand next to the witness box. Pathologists were going to present the victims’ injuries to the court. They started their testimony by laying the doll on the floor while describing the parameters of their work. I was shocked by how this looked: it was as though they had laid a dead body on the ground in the space between the perpetrator and the judges.

The pathologists showed pictures of bullets fired through gelatin, which they said offers about the same resistance as human flesh. They explained how a bullet enters a person by neatly perforating the skin. Then, inside, it starts spinning and tumbling, tearing and tunneling through the flesh before either exiting or fragmenting into shards that can scatter throughout the soft body. This introduction finished, they held up the doll and used two pointers to show where bullets went in and out, translating the medical terminology for body parts for the court.

A boy born in 1993 was “shot three times with the pistol and/or rifle, of which one shot was to the head and one to the back. The shot to the head entered through the left eye into the brain, causing fracture injuries to the cranium and substantial crush injuries to the underside of the left frontal lobe. The shot to the back entered the rear of the right thoracic cavity into the upper lobe of the right lung. [He] died of the gunshot injuries to the head and back/chest.”

A girl born in 1991 was “shot three times with the pistol and/or rifle, of which one shot was to the head and one to the chest. The shot to the head entered the right side of the occiput and left through the left temple, causing substantial damage to the brain. The shot to the chest grazed first the right side of the head, and the projectile fragmented so that a fragment entered the chest, into the left thoracic cavity, damaging the left lung. [She] died of the gunshot injuries to the head and chest.”

A boy born in 1989 was “shot four times with the pistol and/or rifle, of which one shot with the rifle was to the back and one shot with the pistol was to the neck. The shot to the back damaged the left lung and caused hemorrhaging in the left thoracic cavity. The shot to the neck ruptured the spinal column at the level of the third cervical vertebra. [He] died of the gunshot injuries to the neck and chest.”

These were the injuries of a few of the people found dead at the pump house on Utøya. The pathologists detailed the damage done to each of Breivik’s seventy-seven victims; after each description, the victims’ attorneys and families spoke briefly and showed photographs.

The attorney for Trond Berntsen, a security guard who was Breivik’s first victim on Utøya, started to cry while reading notes from Berntsen’s family. “You were the best in the world, Daddy,” a letter from Berntsen’s 10-year-old son said. The attorney for the second victim read from a eulogy given by the victim’s daughter. At her mother’s funeral, the girl had said, “Instead of hating the terrorist, show care and love for your fellow people.” The attorney for Lejla Selaci broke down in tears as he read her family’s note. They said Lejla’s motto was, “I want to be part of everyone getting better.” Her parents and her three brothers said they loved her and missed her and were proud of her, and would fight for her ideals and never give up.

I kept typing and the screen swam with tears. There was no space at that moment to think about politics or what is at stake in this trial. There was just seeing and feeling her family’s raw grief at having lost her.

And in the middle of this shared grief — which made a questionable alliance of the prosecution, the bereaved, many reporters, and one weeping judge — that block of ice sat at his desk, just waiting for the day to be over. Breivik’s presence seemed provocative and wrong, as though by hearing this testimony and remaining unmoved he was challenging all the difficult work these families were putting in, coming here every day like a job they don’t get paid to do. I don’t think they really care whether Breivik is found sane or insane. I think what they most want is to take part in the last shred of their children’s lives.

May 13

Sunday afternoon, salt rain against the windows. I’m at Sunnmøre for the confirmation of my older cousin’s twin girls. As soon as I left court on Friday, I threw my stuff in my satchel and hopped on a plane to Vigra. I left Oslo sweltering in three sweaters and a jacket, and when we landed a gust of wind mixed with frigid rain blew me sideways as I climbed down the aluminum staircase. Welcome home.

I spent Friday afternoon in court trying to wring a story out of the fact that a grieving man threw a shoe at Breivik. “You killed my brother!” he screamed as he was led out of the courtroom, “disintegrating into tears,” as the Norwegian media put it. I got the quotes I needed from the lead security officer, who downplayed the whole thing and showed great understanding for the man who threw the shoe. A 20-year-old Iraqi, he’d come to the trial from Baghdad out of respect for his 19-year-old brother, who had been given political asylum in Norway and was killed on Utøya. Then court was back in session, with another survivor describing in as much detail as he could conjure how he ran for his life. 

Bjørn Ihler, 20, told the court about how as he ran away from the sound of shots, he came upon the youngest kids on Utøya, the 10-year-old sons of two of the security guards. Ihler stayed with the boys and helped them hide as Breivik stalked around, shooting others. At one point, Ihler said, he covered one of them with his own body, fearing that the boy would panic and run out of their hiding spot like a grouse. After Breivik was captured, Ihler said the scene on the island was “like a disaster movie.” He tried to distract the boys from looking around them by asking what they wanted for Christmas, staying with them until rescue personnel arrived.

At first I tried to write down every word the survivors said. One of the youth group leaders, a smooth politician in the rest of her testimony, seemed transformed as she described how she was able to carry a gravely injured girl to safety “because she was just so small.” Instead of seeing a future government minister, I suddenly recognized a young person who had been incredibly brave. But the longer I listened to the survivors’ stories, the harder it became to process details like this one. It’s like Alice Walker’s parable of painting the tiger’s eye. Try too many times and you’re painting stripes instead of eyes. And “too many stripes and the tiger herself disappears.”

At the end-of-the-day press conference on Thursday, some reporters went pretty far in questioning the attorneys’ sentimental approach. Showing happy family photos and reading letters from Mommy and Daddy: the Danish journalist sitting next to me told the prosecution that in Denmark they call this “emo-porno.” A gasp went through the audience of reporters as she used such blunt words to name it. Then I realized how much this implicated us as well, how many of our stories are written for readers seeking a specific emotional response, of sadness and pity and pain.

I went home and wrote a note to one of my editors, carefully echoing the Danish journalist’s concerns: Are we indulging ourselves and the public in an emotionally satisfying display when we should be taking a more high-minded approach to the trial? Ten minutes later I received a crisp, professional response, saying that we do not put “emotional porno” on the wire and not to worry that my journalistic integrity was being compromised by the case, which may be the biggest story ever out of Norway. I felt as though I had confessed impure thoughts and deeds and been absolved of them, even though I knew very well that I had sinned with abandon. 

Next week we’ll have even more testimony from survivors. I don’t know how I’m going to find news in their stories. I hear kids explain how they ran, how they hid, how they escaped. Then there’s an anticlimax, as they describe having trouble sleeping, being unable to go to school. For many of them, random survival has been a sort of death: their understanding of what mattered, what was certain, and what was dangerous has disappeared. As survivors, they are expected to resume their previous lives, but what if for them those lives no longer exist?

Sometimes I can’t imagine what they want from the trial, or what anyone wants from it. Every time I try to talk to my family and friends about it, I get shudders and hunched shoulders. No one wants to hear a word about the Breivik case, which they are keeping up with all the same. It’s as if we all believe that if the trial follows that day down to the bloodiest details, and if we subject ourselves to all of them, then somewhere along the way we’ll experience a catharsis that will allow us never to think of it again. 

The Norwegian word for this is oppgjør, and the most direct translation is reckoning. It’s the word that was used to describe the postwar trials of Nazi collaborators, which led to the execution of forty-seven Norwegians. It also refers to the mob violence that followed the occupation. At the beginning of the Breivik trial, I spent some time reading about Vidkun Quisling, the infamous Norwegian collaborator who led the occupation government. Quisling also had a highly symbolic trial that transfixed the public for weeks. He was found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad. 

Everyone I spoke to about this remonstrated with me for making the comparison. Quisling was a politician who seized power as part of an international political movement; Breivik is a lone killer who never finished high school. But oppgjør describes not crimes against society but how society reacts to them. In Norway it relates, among other things, to the treatment of the thousands of children born to German soldiers and Norwegian women, who along with their mothers were imprisoned, institutionalized, abused, and discriminated against for decades. I suspect, though I cannot say for certain, that our anxiety about responding correctly to Breivik is informed by the memory of the Quisling trial and postwar oppgjør. We understand that Norwegians are not above lashing out in revenge. 

Oslo seems far away from Vardal, a small village on the Sunnmøre region’s weather-hard coastline where the old family farmhouse stands unchanged. It even smells the same as when I was a child and this was an unsupervised paradise, the adults too busy spending time together to mind the kids. We ran around in a muddy gang until dark and they sat up chatting until the early hours. Now I’m one of the adults, but the routines remain the same. Last night we stayed up until two over red wine and bacalao.

This afternoon, guests are arriving for my aunt’s 60th birthday, and I’m in the kitchen writing while my uncle stirs the sauce for dinner. The others are in the living room, where Aunt Marit reads aloud my grandmother’s diary from the 1930s. It’s mostly about food and the weather. “Today we got salted butter on our bread.” When I look out the window I see the fjord slate-colored with little white-tipped waves.

May 19

This was the fifth week, the midway point, and we finally got through all the autopsies. Some survivor testimony remains, and then the rest of the trial will be devoted to trying to understand Breivik. 

There will be testimony from his mother, his former friends, the psychiatrist who evaluated him when he was a child, and finally the court psychiatrists, who will give their conflicting opinions about whether he is fit to be criminally sentenced. The defense has also come up with a more far-flung list of witnesses: right-wing extremists to prove Breivik isn’t alone in his convictions; philosophers to enlighten the court about free will; Islamists to show that Breivik’s fear of a Muslim takeover is not entirely delusional. Witnesses for the prosecution are not itemized in the handout the court has given us, so we can’t infer their strategy from their witness list. 

I proposed to my editors that I cease covering the autopsies in detail. I got my wish, which may have been theirs as well, and was only sent to sit in court on Monday. But the longer the autopsies and survivor stories went on, the more I felt compelled to listen to them, even when I wasn’t in court. One girl described what it was like to be shot through the hands. A girl who was shot to bits but survived recalled being taken back to shore in a boat. She told friends who were on the boat not to look at her, that it would traumatize them to see her wounds. But one of them said, “No, Ina, you are very beautiful.”

Why was I forcing myself to listen to this when it caused me pain? When I am most honest with myself, I have to admit that when I cried as I heard what happened to the victims, I also felt relief that this reaction separated me from Breivik, who sits there like a stone, day in and day out.

At the same time, I am becoming convinced that no deeper meaning can be found in putting Breivik on trial. He says he knows what he has done and describes his motivations and actions in rational-sounding words. He often sounds sane, but appears to lack certain qualities that would allow me to recognize him as a normal person. His words seem less representative of a consciousness than of an inchoate political mood, a xenophobic weather system in the form of one furious man.

Then I’m brought back to earth, where I see the weeping, suffering people in court, pushing themselves through these ten weeks in the hope that something will be revealed to them, that some puncturing of Breivik’s politics will explain why their loved ones died. Do they want him to be found sane or insane? The bereaved have no single answer to this question. Some want Breivik to be found insane, for the court to say that his politics have no place in the world. Others want to see the killer struck down with responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones, and that’s only possible if he’s found psychologically competent to be sentenced.

May 28

It’s broad daylight at 10 pm and I’m sipping red currant saft. It was a strange week. In court, the survivor testimony continued, and the AP didn’t send me to cover it. I spent the days on call, nervously checking the wire service cell phone every ten minutes to see if anyone had thrown anything, crashed anything, or set themselves on fire. But nothing happened. The witnesses kept testifying, adding their voices to the chorus of running, jumping, hiding, bleeding, texting, swimming, freezing, and terrified kids, painting their tiny figures into the Hieronymus Bosch hellscape of it all. Viljar Hansen, shot in the head, touched his own brain as he lay trying to stay conscious. Ylva Schwenke lay waiting to die after Breivik shot her four times. Mohamad Hadi Hamed thought he was back in Baghdad and shouted for help in Arabic. He slumped over the witness box, acting out for the court how he had tried to cover himself, but the court had to imagine it because Hamed no longer has the arm he hid beneath. 

On Friday I returned to court for the last of the victims’ testimony. “You haven’t been here for ten days,” a Swedish reporter grumbled as I kicked her out of my assigned seat.

Those who have covered the trial for the long haul, every day and every victim, seem more subdued than before and rather damaged. They curse more, even in the coffee line. In the middle of a dull testimony from a police officer who helped apprehend Breivik, I turned around and my eyes fell on a harrowed-looking man behind me. Bereaved person, I thought, then noticed he was wearing a press badge. Who knows what he’s seen and heard, during the last two weeks of autopsies and testimony from wounded kids.

On Friday an interrogation specialist gave a paragraph-long description of Breivik that pulled together many unclear ideas I’ve had. Breivik is calm and serious, the interrogator said, and prepares written notes before every session. He’s careful with his fluid intake so as not to become dehydrated. He is cooperative on all matters except those that relate to Knights Templar, the group to which he claims to belong. He’s somewhat reticent about his family. He’s good at articulating ideas, and early in the sessions used a lot of complex vocabulary, but this abated after a while. When one assumes Breivik’s worldview he is logically easy to follow. He thinks analytically and strategically, and has a good memory. He is cold and pragmatic in his descriptions of Utøya. He is preoccupied with providing reasons for his gruesome actions, and that’s the word he uses to describe them, “gruesome.” He presents as narcissistic and self-critical. He can be self-deprecating. 

Breivik has a special look when he comes into court in the morning, solid, stomping, with great natural authority. But he only maintains it for the first five minutes, while the photographers are allowed to take pictures. Once court is in session he seems to close down, like a blown-out candle. He remains absolutely still, except for the few occasions when he writes something down. It’s almost as if he switches to a lower metabolic rate when the cameras aren’t on him.

June 4

Back home in Bergen, approaching 2 am, watching the dawn. I just returned from an evening spent drinking whiskey on Jan’s wooden sailboat while he patiently pumped salt water out of the diesel engine. He was supposed to sail to Amsterdam on Tuesday, but with the engine trouble he wasn’t sure. The last time I lived in Bergen, I was a teenager, and Jan and I were friends then too. Continuity like that, although it means a lot to me, isn’t something we would ever talk about. So I read aloud from his old sailing manuals while he worked and laughed at the salty terms. “If the yacht can be so steered as to keep just the suspicion of a little smile rippling its luff below the throat of the gaff, it will be the perfection of sailing ‘close-hauled,’ or ‘by the wind.’” At home it’s so quiet I can hear a clock ticking. 

I missed this past week in court, with the testimony by Breivik’s former friends and the first of the experts on right-wing ideology. The friends refused to face him, so they spoke in the courtroom while he watched their testimony on a screen in a back room. They went after him a bit, saying he used to wear makeup and be overly concerned about his appearance. He had a nose job at 20 because he thought his nose was too large and “Arabic-looking,” they said. Breivik himself claimed he had surgery after his nose was broken in a bar fight with a Muslim and that the makeup was to cover pimples, not because he was effeminate.

The week ended with the right-wing ideology experts, who as witnesses for the defense testified that Breivik is participating in larger misunderstandings of Norwegian history. The defense’s third witness, an academic named Lars Gule, said he had debated Breivik online before the attacks and didn’t find him any more or less extreme in his viewpoints than thousands of other Norwegians. The populist Progress Party, currently the second-largest party in Parliament, has a far-right wing that maintains many of the same beliefs as Breivik, Gule said. The idea that there is an ongoing war with Muslims who intend to take over Europe and establish a caliphate is not unique to Breivik. Only his actions are his alone.

After the lawyers finished questioning Gule, Breivik spoke. Did the police thoroughly search Gule’s briefcase? he asked, trying to make a joke. No one laughed. Breivik was referring to the fact that in 1977 Lars Gule was arrested in the Beirut airport, where he was about to board a flight to Israel with 750 grams of explosives in his luggage. He had been trained by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine to carry out a terrorist attack on the tenth anniversary of the Six-Day War. When Gule was released several months later from a Lebanese prison, where he said he had been tortured, he returned to Norway, attended graduate school in philosophy, and eventually became secretary general of the Norwegian Humanist Association. No one else in the courtroom made any mention of Gule’s terrorist history.

June 10

I spent eight focused hours in court on Friday taking notes on the testimony of a prosecution witness, psychiatrist Ulrik Malt, who presented a new theory of how to understand Breivik. Malt suggested that Breivik suffers from Asperger syndrome, and that this combined with his right-wing ideology is why it made sense to him to kill kids, how it was possible for him to do it in a machinelike manner, and why he appears to feel no emotions although he intellectually understands the horror of the situation. Malt also proposed that Breivik has narcissistic personality disorder, and that his smirk is a Tourettic tic that emerges during stress. Breivik smirked more often during that explanation than at any point in the trial.

This was the beginning of a series of proposed diagnoses for Breivik, who seemed to cry out for a psychological explanation as he sat there, unmoved, during the long weeks of autopsies and witness testimony. If politics could turn him into that, then in the abstract none of us is safe from becoming him. But if a psychiatric dimension can be added, it will confirm our perceived distance. The sanity question, the only aspect of this trial that will directly determine its outcome, looms even larger as the end approaches.

There were also the nonpsychological, or political, explanations, which came across as equally persuasive. The more complex and contradictory the testimony becomes, the more I am convinced by each successive witness. Immediately after Monday’s testimony by academics who study right-wing extremism and terrorism, I felt theirs was the appropriate diagnosis. But then Breivik asked to add his own perspective. He sat in the witness box and read from a document he had spent the whole day preparing, writing in his minuscule handwriting with the special soft pen they give him. The document was a litany of every slight a Muslim had ever committed against him, beginning when he was 7 years old and a friend’s Turkish father allegedly wrecked his bike. Several years later, the same man grabbed a woman’s arm very hard because she was out walking her dog and he was unfamiliar with the custom. When Breivik was 15 years old, he was caught hanging on the outside of a subway car by the driver, who slapped him in the face. According to Breivik, the man was a Pakistani Muslim. The list went on at the same level of detail, describing parties Breivik went to as a teenager where Muslims were rude to him, late nights at fast-food restaurants where Muslims offended him, and incidents at tram stops where Muslims threatened him, until at 23 Breivik decided to seek out “militant nationalists,” as he put it. At the end of the day, I filed a completely deadpan story listing all of Breivik’s allegations. 

The other right-wing extremists who testified did not express quite the same level of personal woundedness, but they all claimed they had been persecuted by Norwegian society. Tore Tvedt, the founder of the Nazi-inspired group Vigrid, claimed that police had persuaded young people in the group to turn away from him with the promise that they would be allowed to express racist and violent sentiments more openly. “The police told them to cut out Tvedt, then they could go scream sieg heil and fight, and the police would protect them,” Tvedt told Breivik’s attorney, Geir Lippestad. “Fourteen days later Hermansen was killed . . . and you defended the one who did it.”

Tvedt was referring to the murder of Benjamin Hermansen, a 15-year-old Norwegian-Ghanaian boy who was stabbed to death in an Oslo suburb in 2001. Three teenagers associated with Tvedt were convicted in what was considered Norway’s first race-related murder trial. Long before he agreed to defend Breivik, Lippestad was known to most Norwegians for representing one of the defendants. A longtime advocate for the rights of the disabled, Lippestad is portrayed by the press as representing the civic values his clients despise. Shortly before the Breivik trial started, Lippestad told Le Monde, “I feel I have lost my soul in this case. I hope to get it back once it’s over — and that it will be in the same condition as before.”

June 17

At long last, the first team of psychiatrists, Torgeir Husby and Synne Sørheim, the ones who found Breivik insane, presented their report. Husby and Sørheim surprised me by not giving an inch in their assessment, despite all the public outrage and all the witnesses who have contradicted their conclusions. Their report, which has been roundly abused and yet contains so many obvious truths, is worth quoting at length:

The observed maintains that it was fair that the victims died, doesn’t regret it, and feels no guilt. He reckons the victims died as a consequence of his love for the Norwegian people. Asked to assess his own actions, his statements are without empathy. The observed assesses the importance of the murders in relation to his own reputation and future influence, and further how the murders will affect and accelerate the political project of a future takeover of power in Europe. The observed is not able to consider the victims’ or society’s perspective in relation to the recent acts.

The observed doesn’t express emotions in relation to those closest to him. He describes all subjects, from his own childhood to the “execution” of the recent acts, in an operational language, without any emotional component. The observed presents a significant affectlessness and serious failure of empathy.

The observed has a slightly fixed look and blinks a bit. He appears to have a somewhat attenuated demeanor and slightly stiffened body language, as he moves very little in the chair during the examinations. The assessors evaluate this as a slight psychomotor retardation.

The observed uses unusual concepts, exemplified by words and phrases such as low-intensity civil war, military order, military court, executioner, and operation. The concept use is wholly connected to the observed’s belief that there is a civil war in this country, and is evaluated as an expression of underlying, all-encompassing paranoid delusions. . . .

The observed presents his own invented words such as national Darwinist, suicide-Marxist, suicidal humanism, knightly magistrate, knightly magistrate commander, knightly magistrate master, and knightly magistrate grandmaster [ridderjustitiariusstormester]. The concepts are evaluated to be neologisms.

The observed believes he has seized control of the organization Knights Templar, which has a mandate to be a “military order,” “martyr organization,” “military court,” “judge, jury, and executioner.” He thinks he has the responsibility to decide who should live and die in Norway. The responsibility is experienced as real but burdensome. The phenomena are evaluated as bizarre, grandiose delusions.

He thinks a considerable number of people (several hundred thousand) support his recent actions. He thinks he has an overdeveloped sense of love. He thinks he is a pioneer in a European civil war. He compares his situation to that of historical figures such as Tsar Nicholas and Queen Isabella. The phenomena are evaluated as grandiose delusions.

It took Husby and Sørheim a full day to present the report. They insisted they were correct to ignore any political dimension of Breivik’s psyche. “One doesn’t go searching for theological expertise every time a new Jesus is admitted” to the psychiatric ward, Husby said. “And neither does one go collecting historical expertise when a new Napoleon is admitted, even if he arrives in full dress uniform.”

In his questioning Lippestad pressed them immediately on Breivik’s politics. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that it’s the fight against Muslims he’s concerned with. It’s the ‘Muslim danger’ he talks about all the time. There are no other things I’ve heard him say he fears except Muslims. So, is there in your opinion any doubt that it’s Muslims he’s thinking of when he talks about saving us from danger?”

Sørheim and Husby were seated beside each other at their desk in the center of the courtroom. When Sørheim speaks, she sounds like a person used to making official statements. Her dialect is perfect standard Norwegian. It sounds as though someone has left on the TV.

“We haven’t included in this understanding anything other than what he said himself, that this is the battle between good and evil,” she said. “And we think this is — what shall I say — he chose to sum it up that way, and we take him at his word.”

Lippestad tried again.

“But I think that if he had been sitting there saying that he has done this to prevent a Martian invasion, or prevent totally impossible things from happening, then I understand this logic. But he has said quite literally, from day one, that he has done these things to prevent a Muslim takeover of Europe. Is there a difference if he’s afraid Muslims will take over Europe or if he thinks, for example, that a million hedgehogs are coming to take over Norway?”

Sørheim hesitated a bit—“it’s clear that it’s terribly different to worry about Muslims than hedgehogs”—but did not modify her answer. For the purposes of a psychiatric evaluation, there was no difference between Muslims and hedgehogs. “How he should then sacrifice himself for this fight in principle could have been the same.”

I first read Husby and Sørheim’s report when it was leaked to the press late last year, and it didn’t occur to me that their conclusions could be wrong. But when I started attending the trial, nothing I saw fit with what I had previously assumed. Still, so much in Husby and Sørheim’s report rings true that it’s impossible to discount it. And one comment Husby made seemed so striking and clarifying that I tried and failed for days to get it into a wire story:

“There’s been a lot of talk about how much he should be allowed to speak in court, that is to say, how much the court should be a soapbox, and so on. From a psychiatric perspective it would almost be an asset . . . to have him speak more . . . because he is in many ways his own worst enemy. When he opens his mouth, people understand there’s something wrong with what comes out.”

June 24

The final week of the trial came at last, and the second team of psychiatrists presented their report. Terje Tørrissen and Agnar Aspaas, who were appointed to evaluate Breivik after the first report caused such an outcry, came to the opposite conclusion, that Breivik does not have a severe mental illness and was not psychotic at the time of the attacks. Their report carefully described the distinctions between their approach and Husby and Sørheim’s:

The assessors would emphasize that the observed presents as a special case. The actions he is on trial for and the callousness he shows toward the killings and acts of terror he acknowledges having committed make him stand out from everything else the assessors have seen in their psychiatric practice. In this way, he challenges the current system of classification and understanding, especially in the border area between fractured reality and political fanaticism. . . . Through this, the border between law and psychiatry is questioned, too. The assessors will not hide the fact that this represents general uncertainties in the psychiatric evaluation.

Tørrissen and Aspaas’s report, with its insistent humility, was much less controversial than Husby and Sørheim’s, and so was not dissected to nearly the same degree in court. It’s also drier reading, and the many times I’ve settled down with it I’ve abandoned it after a few pages.

Thursday and Friday I walked to court through the still, early morning streets, arriving in time to stop for an espresso. I sat in the window seat of the café beside the courthouse, watching people tie one last batch of roses to the barricades. When I arrived, I told the Stockholm editor that it was easier to type in the pressroom, and stayed out of Breivik’s presence. Enough is enough.

On Thursday the pressroom was as full as it was during the opening days of the trial. As soon as a judge gaveled the day to a start a hundred reporters leapt into typing. The woman sitting across from me placed a box of tissues on her desk before proceedings even started. (That and a box of snus, a kind of smokeless tobacco to which all Norwegian journalists seem to be addicted. They look like llamas with those little packets tucked under their lips as they work.) The question of the day was whether the prosecution would ask that Breivik be put in psychiatric care and not be held criminally responsible. Would they really, as they have indicated all along, claim he was motivated by insanity, not politics? 

They did, and attempted to shore up the argument by focusing on the problem of doubt. Any doubt about whether the accused is sane or insane should cause the court to favor the interests of the accused, the prosecution said. And “in our opinion, it would be worse if a psychotic person were sentenced to prison than if a nonpsychotic person were sentenced to compulsory psychiatric care.” In other words, they were making an argument about least harm — but their concern was not harm to Norwegian society, but harm to Breivik. 

Friday was the last day of the trial. Geir Lippestad was not at his best as he gave his closing arguments. The tabloid headlines would claim he hadn’t slept the night before. Yes, doubts should count in favor of the accused, he said, but whether a sanity or insanity verdict was in Breivik’s favor was open to evaluation. He repeated the words of one of the psychiatrists who observed Breivik, and said that “it is just as bad to treat someone who is well as it is to not treat someone who is ill.” It would violate Breivik’s rights, Lippestad claimed, to discount the motivations he has claimed for his actions. “If we . . . take as a starting point that the accused has a radical political project, to pathologize his actions takes away a basic human right from him — the right to take responsibility for his own actions.”

At the end of his three-hour closing statement, Lippestad forgot to ask that his client be found not guilty. Breivik had to remind him to do it. “Sorry, sorry, I took my glasses off a bit too soon,” Lippestad said. “Not guilty.”

The defense attorney was followed by four bereaved women. Kristi Løvlie, who lost her daughter Hanne in the Oslo bombing, moved the entire court to tears one last time. How horrible it was to inherit household items from her child, she said. How terrible Christmas was without her. How difficult it was to come to court each day and face Breivik. There was a feeling of finality and extraordinary honesty to her words, as though she were channeling something collective.

“I decided that I wouldn’t fear this man. That I wouldn’t be afraid to meet him in court. I was going to court to follow Hanne. I wouldn’t back out, and I managed not to. I felt I owed that to Hanne. I wanted to follow her all the way here. And I managed, I’m actually quite proud of that. . . . Now we’ve reached the end. This has been the trial for me, and if there’s an appeal I don’t want to be part of that. I’ve come to think that this man won’t scare me. I think I’ll be able to live with what’s happened here. I’ve gotten some answers, even though not everything has been cleared up. Now, we move on.”

When Løvlie finished speaking, everyone started clapping. That had never happened before, and it wouldn’t again. The show was over. I stuck around for the final press conference, and packed my bag slowly. Coming out of court, I loosened the bow tie my cousin Dorte gave me for my birthday. Tying it on this morning, I texted her to tell her I was wearing it. Dorte’s office building was hit hard in the bombing, and she has no memory of how she got out. Given how tortured I have been by other “what if?” scenarios, it was a surprise to realize during the trial that I hadn’t once imagined what it would have been like if Dorte had died. It’s strange to find that the mind doesn’t circle around an event when it gets what it wants — namely, that the people you love keep on living.

And the Utøya parents, what will happen to them? And the brothers and sisters, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the best friends and the secret crushes. All of the families, all of that death and silence, hundreds of people missing their loved ones for years and years to come. No sense, just loss.

On this muddy note, let me close this series of letters from Oslo. Did you know that the trial ended on Midsummer’s Eve, what we call Saint Hans Eve here in Scandinavia? It’s the shortest night of the year, and people stay up burning bonfires and acting like pagans while the birds chirp and the sun refuses to set. There will be no night tonight. 

Postscript

On August 24, Anders Behring Breivik was found sane. He was sentenced to twenty-one years of preventive detention, the longest sentence allowed under Norwegian law, which can be extended as long as Breivik is deemed a danger to society. In the ruling, a judge wrote that “although twenty-one years is a very long punishment, the court finds it unlikely that the duration in and of itself would reduce the danger of another attack. At the time of release, the democracy he wishes to abolish will still endure.” Breivik did not appeal the sentence.

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  • Julia Grønnevet
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