The making of a monster

What drove Anders Breivik to commit the worst peacetime shooting spree in modern history?
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rex Features ( 1389253b ) Anders Behring Breivik in a police escort Anders Behring Breivik leaving the Oslo Municipal Court, Norway - 25 Jul 2011
The making of a monster
Rex Features/CP

Even the neo-Nazis are fleeing from Anders Breivik, the Norwegian assassin who killed 77 people in a July 22 rampage from downtown Oslo to the resort island of Utøya. In his horribly mesmerizing, 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik wrote boyishly about his deep attachment to the music of Saga, a Swedish singer who performs race-hate classics and pro-Nazi originals. But in an official statement, Saga called Breivik’s mass killing “one of the most vile and criminal acts in recent history,” and promised, “I have never sought to encourage or promote violence and I never shall.” Harsh words, coming from a master interpreter of Skrewdriver’s stirring The Snow Fell—a song in praise of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. (“They fought as a force, as a light / Against the darkness in a holy war.”)

Breivik’s massacre has left the world scrambling to make sense of a “revolutionary conservative” philosophy that defies tidy categorization. At about 3:20 on the afternoon of July 22, Breivik parked a rented Volkswagen van containing a half-ton of explosives at the doorway to the office of Norway’s Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The bomb contained a mixture of fertilizer and fuel oil, materials painstakingly acquired by Breivik through a hobby farm he set up for the purpose. Disguised as a policeman, Breivik went unchallenged by security officers as he left the van and ducked round a corner, climbing into another rented vehicle he had stashed earlier for his getaway.

The bomb detonated at 3:25 p.m., killing eight. Breivik then drove west to the shore of the fjord Tyrifjorden, and took the ferry across the 1,200-m channel to Utøya, an island belonging to the Labour party’s youth organization. Claiming to be a police officer doing a “security check” in the aftermath of the Oslo bombing, he called together attendees at a Labour summer camp and opened fire with a semi-automatic Ruger Mini-14 rifle and a 9-mm Glock pistol.

What followed is the deadliest shooting spree ever committed by a single gunman in peacetime. Breivik acted with unflinching deliberation, delivering fatal rounds to the heads of young campers who tried to play possum. About 600 Labourite teenagers are believed to have been attending the camp, and Breivik was left free to pick them off for at least 90 minutes while the Norwegian national counterterror unit, unable to find suitable helicopter transport from Oslo to the lake, followed Breivik’s route by road. Once they did arrive, the weight of the crew and their equipment almost swamped the civilian boat they commandeered. “The boat was way too small and way too poor,” said the operations chief for the regional police.

The first responders were thus civilian vacationers on the shore facing Utøya. One of them, 32-year-old German roofer Marcel Gleffe, is credited with saving up to 30 lives, repeatedly picking up wounded children in his boat and racing them to shore. Gleffe was joined by other boaters in the rescue effort; all, he says, had heard the news of the Oslo bombing but paid no heed to the risk. “The youths were good,” he told the Dagbladet tabloid. “They supported each other and were organized, and said who needed first aid and who had to be taken into the boat first. ‘You must take him, you must take him.’ ”

The final toll of 69 dead on the island included two 14-year-olds, seven 15-year-olds, and 46 other teenaged victims. The long-time head organizer of the camp, Monica “Mother Utøya” Bosei, 45, was among the very first to die; Breivik is said to have shot her after she grew suspicious of him and tried to alert the lone guard on the island. The unarmed guard, 51-year-old Trond Berntsen, was the next victim. Berntsen was a stepbrother of Mette-Marit, the nation’s Crown Princess and presumptive future queen consort.

When the police finally reached him, Breivik threw down his weapons and surrendered immediately. His capture presents a formidable challenge to Norway’s proverbially soft justice system; the maximum prison sentence a Norwegian court can give him is 21 years, with provisions for possible renewal if he is found to present a continuing danger to society. The manifesto Breivik emailed to 1,000 potential sympathizers and online publishers shortly before the attack suggests, however, that he never expected to survive it. Much of it consists of cut-and-pasted conservative literature on the threat of Muslim immigration to Europe. Breivik believes that postwar “cultural Marxists” have left a relativist, feminized, spiritually empty continent helpless to defend core values and folkways against Islamic incursions.

On this, Breivik could find agreement among bloggers and writers on the non-racialist right, and he may have created a nightmarish publicity problem for his major influences, who include a popular Norwegian anti-Islam blogger known only as “Fjordman”; Gisèle Littman, the theorist and historian of “dhimmitude,” who writes under the pen name Bat Ye’or; the Serbian paleoconservative writer Srdja Trifkovic; Dutch politician/film producer Geert Wilders; and anti-Islam U.S. bloggers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller.

Breivik sees himself as the inspiration for an inevitable European uprising against multiculturalist governments that favour mass immigration. The killer’s manifesto—perhaps intentionally, perhaps only because it was written over a long period of time—reveals a political philosophy that is complex and contradictory in everything but its hostility to Islam and to “Marxism,” a term he uses with dizzying broadness to cover almost anything that is hostile to narrow cultural nationalism. Unlike his heroine Saga, Breivik rejects Nazism, calling it “genocidal and imperialistic in nature,” and lumps it in with his other “hate ideologies,” namely Islam, Communism and multiculturalism.

The political models he favours are low-immigration democracies outside Europe, notably Japan and South Korea; he admires India’s Hindu-nationalist politicians. His strong Zionism leads him to call Jews “our primary ally” against Islam. But while not a Nazi per se, Breivik devotes one of the creepiest sections of the manifesto to his “pragmatic” personal opposition to “race-mixing,” warning that it diminishes social cohesion and leads to suicide and “severe mental problems” for mixed-race offspring.

The place of religion in Breivik’s perverted politics is similarly resistant to simple summary. He considers himself to be “100 per cent Christian” but skates carefully around the question of whether he believes Christ was God, and is critical of both the papacy and modern milquetoast Protestant churches. In a chilling passage that sets out his views most clearly, he writes, “Religion is a crutch for many weak people and many embrace religion for self-serving reasons as a source for drawing mental strength…Since I am not a hypocrite, I’ll say directly that this is my agenda as well.” However, he writes, “I have not yet felt the need to ask God for strength, yet. But I’m pretty sure I will pray to God as I’m rushing through my city, guns blazing, with 100 armed system protectors pursuing me with the intention to stop and/or kill.”

In the end, Breivik’s biography may say more about what turned an intelligent autodidact, still praised by childhood friends for his strong sense of justice, into one of the most frightening monsters of recent European history. His parents both had children from prior marriages, divorcing when he was a year old and moving on to new spouses. His biological father cut all ties with Breivik and his siblings when Breivik was 15; the assassin describes this decision with an almost comical defensiveness (“The thing is that he is just not very good with people”).

Although Breivik’s boasts about being part of a Europe-wide movement of right-wing terror are yielding nothing but wind, his description of his own life appears to be largely accurate and sincere. He spent his adolescence as a graffiti-tagging hip-hop obsessive and had a multiracial circle of friends that included Muslims. He produces a meticulously documented list of minor street conflicts and affrays with Muslim gangs in Oslo, and it is here, in a passage that resembles Mein Kampf in its self-mythologization, that one almost feels closest to unlocking the secret of Breivik. “They had weapons, we had weapons. I was hit with a billiard pool [sic] in the head.”

He was, by his own account, a steroid-abusing gangster, but in the inner drama of his life, he finds it easy to connect clashes with Muslims his own age to a wider narrative of “EUrabia” and political betrayal. There can hardly have been a truer example of philosopher Eric Hoffer’s bored, solipsistic The True Believer. Breivik seems to have been in search of a devil—omniscient, omnipresent, cunning—to give his life meaning and structure. From a heap of intellectual detritus, he was able to construct one. Like many of the True Believers in European history, he gave it a dark, sinister, foreign face.