I’m not being dramatic. I burst into tears during my lunch break reading Åsne Seierstad’s devastating and chilling account of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway. I thought about closing my book and pulling myself together, but I was too invested. Instead, I just let my hair cover my face and hope no one noticed.
One of Us starts with two teenagers running for their lives. They’re being hunted by a strange man in a police officer’s uniform on a small Norwegian island. Unable to find a place to hide, they decide to lie down in the woods, and pretend they’re already dead. He finds them and shoots them point-blank, before moving on to find more victims.
The man holding the gun was Anders Behring Breivik, a lone-wolf fanatic suffering from delusions of grandeur. Unsuccessful in his career, unsuccessful in love, unsuccessful in finding a group that respected him as much as he deserved, he found groups to blame for his failures. Feminists were the enemy. Muslims were the enemy. Cultural Marxists were the enemy. The Labor Party that supported those groups was the enemy. They were leading the country down the wrong path. They needed to be stopped. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Breivik remembered reading that quote from Thomas Jefferson. And Breivik would refresh that tree himself.
It’s hard to say how long Breivik was planning his attack (he said it was many years, but fuck that guy, I don’t believe a word that comes out of garbage mouth). Months before the attack, he moved out and rented an isolated farm. There, he stockpiled ammo, wrote his manifesto and began to build a bomb. He told his mother that he was becoming a farmer.
On July 22nd, 2001 Breivik detonated a bomb outside of government buildings in Oslo killing 8, including a newlywed who had recently learned he was going to become a father. He then headed to Utøya, where he killed 69 more-mostly teenagers, attending a summer camp sponsored by the Labor Party. Seierstad spent hundreds of pages introducing us to some of these kids, making their deaths even more painful. These were great kids, excited about their futures, studying for their driver’s tests, and full of plans for fixing the world. Some were from small towns, some were immigrants. Two sisters were born in Kurdistan, before their family fled to Norway in search for a better life. Breivik mowed them all down, emptying bullets into his victims to be sure they were truly dead. Seierstad’s writing is dispassionate and clinical, making her stories about a boy crying for his parents or a girl holding her jaw together after a bullet shattered it, even more impossible to bear.
Everything went according to plan for Breivik. He killed Norway’s enemies. Before doing so, he’d published his manifesto and even snapped pictures of himself in military uniform for reporters to use. After he was captured (he surrendered; he wanted to be taken alive) the courtroom became his stage, where he bragged about how powerful he was, how persecuted he was, and about the evils he had eradicated. He daydreamed about spending his time in jail trading correspondence with his admirers, and inspiring the next generation of sexist, racist, murderous assholes. He’d be infamous. And that was all he ever wanted. For all of the lip service to ideology, all these pathetic weasels care about is being important.
Which is why his punishment was so perfect. Breivik was found both guilty and mentally competent (which he wanted). He settled in his jail cell to wait for his admirers to write….and he’s still waiting. The people who shared his anti-Muslim ideology openly disavowed him as an insane murderer. The only letters he received were from sane people who hate what he did. His own writing didn’t go well-using a pen caused his poor delicate hand to cramp after a few hours. He sits there, pathetically whining about the justice system that locked him away. And there he’ll stay, hopefully for the rest of his miserable life.
The final indignity for Breivik is this-even in his own book, he’s reduced to an afterthought. For all of the pages devoted to his childhood, his writings, his pathetic worldview, what stays with the reader are the incredible people he killed and the families still mourning him. They are what elevates One of Us from your run-of-the-mill true crime book to a must-read heartbreaker. Read this book. Remember your tissues.