There is also something deeply sincere, almost innocent, about Norwegian culture.
every May 17th, National Constitution Day
The celebration takes place without irony and is essentially unpolitical—both the left and the right are united in this sea of flags and children. This says something about the country’s egotism, but also about its harmlessness.
in their eyes and their body language incredulity, shock, confusion. The usual detachment with which news is delivered had collapsed. Indeed, at that moment it seemed as if the world stood open.
how normalized both the perpetrator and the crime had become. It was as if the fact that he was a human being like us, who defended his point of view, subsumed the incomprehensible: suddenly, Breivik was the measure, not his crime
This reduction of the perpetrator, the act of making him seem less dangerous, is understandable, because a person in and of himself is small, but that does not mean we understand any more about how this act of terror was possible. On the contrary, in the wake of the trial, it is as if the two entities, the unimaginable crime and the man who committed it, were irreconcilable.
What can prompt a relatively well-functioning man to do something so horrific?
it is natural to draw a comparison between his act and the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, where Timothy McVeigh, in an anti-government protest, parked a truck bomb outside a federal building and murdered a hundred and sixty-eight people.
almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from the political and the ideological and toward the personal.
He made himself a sort of military commander’s uniform, in which he photographed himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organization, of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist; in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to “show” us.
He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else.
Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.
Adolf Eichmann, the man whom Arendt wrote about, belonged to an organization and a bureaucracy and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast, from the very first moment Breivik was utterly alone, and his smallness and wretchedness, which were, in a way, grotesquely inflated by his actions, make it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have termed “the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War.”
He is a person filled to the brim with himself. And that is perhaps the most painful thing of all, the realization that this whole gruesome massacre, all those extinguished lives, was the result of a frustrated young man’s need for self-representation.
n many ways, I find it repellent to write about Anders Behring Breivik. Every time his name appears in public, he gets what he wants, and becomes who he wants, while those whom he murdered, at whose expense he asserted himself, lost not only their lives but also their names—we remember his name, but they have become numbers. And yet we must write about him, we must think about the crisis that Breivik’s actions represent.
I do not believe that Breivik himself has anything to teach us. I believe that his life is a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances, and what he did was such an anomaly that it makes no sense even to guard ourselves against it.
Nonetheless, the world is full of difficult childhoods—some people succumb, while others prevail, but no one murders sixty-nine people, one after another, single-handedly. The world is also full of people with narcissistic tendencies—I am one of them—and it is full of people who cannot empathize with others. And the world is full, too, of people who share Breivik’s extreme political ideas but who do not consider them ground to murder children and young people. Breivik’s childhood explains nothing, his character explains nothing, his political ideas explain nothing.
Until his moment of decision, Breivik appears to have been an ordinary person, the kind you might meet anywhere. He had a difficult upbringing, to be sure, but that is more common than one might think; he had yet to find his place in life, he was not who he wanted to be, but that is also a relatively common experience. His great inner conflicts were something that he kept secret, even from himself. It was only when he carried out a terrorist attack that he stood out. When I read about him, I can follow him up to that point, my empathy stretches that far, but it goes no further.
What does it take to kill another person? Or, to put it another way, what is it that prevents us from killing?
This dehumanization process
I am thinking of the bonds among people, the presence of the other in ourselves, and the responsiveness around which every community and culture is built, which reveals itself in the commandment we see in the faces of others: do not kill.
Murder is against human nature, but in extreme cases this can be overcome if the community to which one belongs enjoins or encourages it. The events that are now occurring in Iraq and Syria, the brutal murders committed by the Islamic State, cannot be ascribed to people having suddenly become evil but, rather, to the disintegration of the mechanisms that in a civilized society typically prevent people from engaging in rape and murder. A culture of war and murder has arisen. It happened in Rwanda and in the Balkans. It is one of the possibilities human beings contain within themselves. However, it is so distant from what most of us experience that we cannot begin to identify with it. They burn prisoners in cages. The ruthlessness and the indifference to life that these actions suggest are unfathomable.
All norms and rules were annulled in him, a war culture had arisen in him, and he was completely indifferent to human life, and absolutely ruthless.
Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.
he most powerful human forces are found in the meeting of the face and the gaze. Only there do we exist for one another. In the gaze of the other, we become, and in our own gaze others become. It is there, too, that we can be destroyed. Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing.
Breivik remained unseen, and it destroyed him. He then looked down, and he hid his gaze and his face, thereby destroying the other inside him.
n a remarkable moment during the trial, Breivik described how he had stood before a group of young people, who were lined up against a cabin wall, preparing to shoot them. He thought it very strange that they did not move, did not run, but just stood there, since he had never seen people behave that way in any movie.
His victims still remain images to him. He knows what he did, but he has no conception of the devastation. Only an individual self can feel for another, and Breivik no longer possesses that self; it is dead.
Everything in Anders Behring Breivik’s history up until the horrific deed can be more or less found in every life story; he was and is one of us. The fact that he did what he did, and that other young men, misfits, have shot scores of people, implies that the necessary distance from the other is attainable in our culture, probably more so now than it was a couple of generations ago.
we all inhabit this culture, we all move between fiction and reality, between image and material, and the distance to the other is no straightforward quantity, and neither is the act of averting one’s gaze. In order to see the culture, one must stand outside it; in order to see the individual, one must stand outside him.
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