On 21 July 2011, the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, visited the picturesque island of Utoya, which lies in Tyrifjorden Lake, in southern Norway, about twenty-five miles from Oslo. Utoya is owned by the Workers’ Youth League, which hosts a summer camp each year for young left-wing activists. The prime minister disembarked from the Utoya ferry in the balmy heat, accompanied by reporters, and gave a rousing speech to the campers about democratic values.
That night, alone in his bachelor pad, Anders Breivik emailed his thousand or so followers. The attachment he sent would later be referred to as a manifesto. In somewhat dry prose, much of which was plagiarised, he argued that “the Muslim invasion of Europe” had to be stopped. He said that the recent increase in immigration had led to a crime wave and that western civilisation was on the brink of collapse. He partly blamed Norway’s socialist government, several members of which had children in the Workers’ Youth League. The gist of his ragtag collection of documents was his belief that a modern Knights Templar must fight on behalf of “swamped populations.”
Breivik’s manifesto was in places spurious and puritanical, claiming, for example, that leftism causes suicide and venereal disease, that sex hinders a person’s spiritual development, and that love is a mass media construct. When not typing furiously—or copying and pasting from the dark web—Breivik would be playing on his Xbox. In the subsequent trial, he confessed that he believed this would improve his aim.
The morning after the prime minister’s visit to the Workers’ Youth League summer campers began with the patter of rain against canvas. Despite the drastic change in weather, the atmosphere at the camp was upbeat. Donning cagoules, the young activists visited each other’s tents before beginning to attend the day’s sessions. A hundred miles away, Breivik, wearing a fake police commando uniform, was on his way to Oslo in a hired Volkswagen van containing a 950 kg explosive device. On arriving in Oslo, he left the vehicle outside the main entrance to the government headquarters and retreated to avoid flying debris before setting off the explosion remotely. It ripped off much of the facade of the building, showered its concourse with fragments of concrete and shards of glass, killed eight people and badly injured hundreds. Breivik then journeyed by car towards Utoya. By the time he reached the ferry to the island, news of the explosion in Oslo had been broadcast around the world. The ferry operator later said that he had assumed the uniformed figure had been sent to warn the campers, though it had struck him as odd that a police commando was wearing airpods.
In his manifesto, Breivik writes that he chose as the soundtrack for what he called his action Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna” (the eternal light), a piece based on Roman Catholic funerary odes. He’d first heard the piece as the haunting score of Requiem for a Dream, which explores the idea that the American dream has gone hopelessly bad. The film, though gripping and often shocking, portrays no positive characters or outcomes, only deep suffering briefly alleviated by narcotics and ending in suicide. But Breivik sought to annihilate others, rather than himself. He did not see the teens whom he gunned down in cold blood on Utoya as innocents. He saw them as future Labour politicians, phonies, advocates of multiculturalist ideology.
By the time Breivik arrived on the island that day, the rain had stopped and a dense fog had settled in. A few yards away from the ferry, Breivik raised his rifle against the first people he saw and squeezed the trigger. His victims had no time to react: he appeared out of nowhere and in any event would have been mistaken for a police officer.
On he went, northwards towards the cafe at Utoya’s highest point. As he continued to shoot, teenagers fell dead at his feet. A young woman crawled away, pleading for her life, only to be shot in the stomach. After thirty minutes of slaughter, he called the police on a mobile phone he had taken from one of his victims. Standing near the water’s edge, he offered to surrender; nevertheless, whenever he saw anyone trying to escape by swimming to the mainland, he shot them. When the police arrived, he immediately threw down his weapon and put his hands in the air. By then, he had murdered sixty-nine people, many of them schoolchildren. This remains the deadliest act of terrorism ever perpetrated by a lone individual.
Some commentators suggested that the atrocity was an indication that Norway and the whole western world had lost its way—that there was something rotten at the heart of liberal democracy. Noting that Breivik was white and had a boy-next-door appearance, they suggested that the murderer could have been anyone. To these commentators, the slaughter of innocents was an opportunity to condemn what is, overall, a tolerant and successful society.
However, the overriding response to the atrocity was the desire to hold Breivik morally accountable. The pretrial psychiatric report that cited mental illness as the cause of Breivik’s actions was widely condemned. Nor did Breivik himself plead mental illness. In court, despite his occasional tears, Breivik said that he stood by what he had done, that the manifesto hadn’t come from voices in his head, that he was not only rational but correct.
Commentators on far-right websites suggested that Breivik had been brainwashed, and implied that he was as much a victim as the seventy-seven people he had killed. The vast majority of Norwegians had no sympathy for this view: regardless of what the killer might have read online, it was he who had blown up a building, and he who had pulled the trigger over and over again. The outcome of the trial was consistent with this view: the court rejected the psychiatric report, and Breivik was sent to prison.
Stoltenberg’s government had implemented a generous immigration policy without first inviting much public debate. In all likelihood, this policy was driven by good-faith humanitarian impulses. Yet it changed Oslo’s cultural mix and fuelled unemployment and a housing shortage. This was the elephant in the room, and, after the murders, it became even more difficult to discuss, since doing so might make it seem that Breivik’s self-described action had in a way been successful. (Regardless of whether an earlier public discussion of immigration policy would have prevented Breivik from committing mass murder, it would at least have removed one of his core rationales: his belief that the government was conspiring with Islamists to undermine western democracy.)
If there is a lesson to be taken from the horrific events of ten years ago, it is that the failure to engage with an opposing point of view may add to its power. If the Norwegian government’s immigration policy and its negative effects had been more publicly scrutinised, Breivik might have been less likely to believe that reporters, commentators, educationalists and politicians were somehow conspiring to use that policy to undermine the indigenous population.
Although jihadists think the caliphate is good and western democracy is bad—while for Breivik it was the other way around—both belief systems are deeply pessimistic about the current state of the world and assume that destruction is needed to bring about something better. This pessimism is perhaps a relatively modern phenomenon: during the Victorian era—the heyday of empire and industry—it might have seemed odd. Many people back then would probably have agreed that humanity was on a road to consistent technological and cultural progress.
In the twentieth century, however, many thinkers began to raise serious doubts about the idea of progress and the benefits of modernity. In the arts, for example, Ernst Kirchner and other adherents of primitivism believed that progress was overrated and moved us away from what they saw as the ideal of the noble savage. Perhaps the defining expression of this downbeat outlook was Oscar Spengler’s Decline of the West, written while World War I was raging and two revolutions were erupting in Russia. When the book was published in Germany in 1918, it proved enormously popular: to many, it seemed possible that what was happening in Russia could happen in Germany, and perhaps in most of the other nations that had been at war. The book’s thesis is that all civilisations follow a predictable path: a rise followed by an inevitable fall and eventual collapse. Spengler argued that western civilisation had already reached its peak, that it was now suffering a terminal decline, and that nothing could be done to prevent this.
Spengler’s idea of history is cyclical rather than nihilistic: he noted that new cultures tend to rise from the ashes. But he predicted that the scientific, technological and cultural achievements of the day were transitory and would be blown away like dust when western culture collapsed. Perhaps Breivik’s manifesto was written from the same pessimistic perspective. Perhaps, in his warped mind, he was fighting on behalf of the west, to save it from the fate Spengler gloomily predicted. A more open and frank examination of the positive and negative aspects of immigration might—just might—have prevented him from succumbing to that apocalyptic vision.