Americans are enamored of assimilation. After all, if our country is the best, the greatest, the most spectacular in the world, then why wouldn’t its newest residents want to be a part of that? Who doesn’t want to fit in with the best?
But when we demand that immigrants assimilate, what are we really asking them to get on board with? Chain stores and fast-food restaurants? Income-inequality and underhanded racism? We want immigrants to learn our culture, but only a fraction of American culture isn’t appropriated from somewhere else. We want them to learn English, to ensure that their kids fit in with our kids, but it’s our kids, American kids, who are bombing in test scores against students in other countries. We act like the path to assimilation is laid out in lights, warm friendly lights—but in practice it’s a difficult road with plentiful setbacks. And at the end of it? Well then you’re an American. Gone are the head scarves and exotic foods of your past life, swapped out for fanny packs and frozen chicken nuggets. Assimilation to many Americans means not mutual respect for myriad cultures, but sameness. For a country so embroiled in its own partisanship, in its own divisions and drawing of battle lines, methinks we spend far too much time expounding self-righteously on the importance of cohesion.
There are a few endgames to this kind of aggressive insistence on cultural (or religious or national) unity, none of them pretty. Assimilation can be forced, at a government level, through bans and regulations that chip away at the traditions of a particular culture. Or assimilation can be won (or lost) through fear, through a zeitgeist of intolerance that suggests otherness is to be avoided, otherness is potentially dangerous, otherness should be shamed. In this worldview, allowing otherness means diluting us.
Anders Breivik saw himself as a warrior on the front lines against dilution. As founding (read: only) member and self-proclaimed “knight Justiciar grand master” of a Knights Templar outfit dedicated to fighting multiculturalism, the “Islamization of western Europe” and the reign of “cultural Marxists,” Breivik felt about Norway in the early 2000s the way Donald Trump feels about America now: There are too many immigrants, too many Muslims. The country is in trouble; the liberals are putting it there. As far as he was concerned, Norway needed to be made Great Again.
When a bomb went off outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo on July 22, 2011, the media and the Norwegian people assumed it was a terrorist attack; many figured it was al-Qaeda. The bomb killed eight people, and might have killed more, had two errant trucks not made it impossible for Breivik to park his explosive-laden van in the ideal direction.
Less than two hours after the explosion, the first reports came in of a gunman on Utøya, a small island in the Tyrifjorden lake. Utøya is owned by the Workers’ Youth League (Arbeidernes ungdomsfylking, or AUF), the youth wing of the country’s Labour Party. On the afternoon of July 22, a man dressed as a police officer began walking around the island and systematically shooting the teens assembled there for the AUF’s annual summer camp. The earliest reports of the shooting—which went on for more than an hour before the actual police arrived—estimated the dead at around 10. It would ultimately prove to be 69, mostly teenagers, some as young as 14. When the police finally reached the shores of Utøya, it didn’t take them long to spot Breivik, who by that point had already called them himself, twice, to surrender. Breivik dropped his gun and lay on the ground to be handcuffed. After months of planning and hours of killing, he’d finished his mission.
Murdering so many, enough to provoke nationwide outcry, was Breivik’s plan all along. We know this, as well as extensive details about how he made the bomb that went off in Oslo. We know that Breivik’s terrorism trial, in which he received the maximum 21 years, was what he considered his opportunity to “denounce the Marxist world hegemony” and position himself as a living martyr. We know that he also had big plans for prison, where Breivik thought he would “establish a pan-European prison alliance of militant nationalists.”
We know all of this because Breivik kept a detailed log of his July 22 preparations, and because in conjunction with his attack he released a 1,500-page manifesto and accompanying video, outlining his political views and his opinion that he, the knight Justiciar grand master himself, was best positioned to lead the new world order. And we know all that because of Åsne Seierstad, who pored through both documents—as well as police interviews, court records, witness statements and interviews with survivors and with victims’ families—to write One Of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.
It would be an understatement to say I have been engrossed in this book. A fat hardcover, One of Us sits in my purse like a brick, and yet I’ve schlepped it everywhere for the better part of two weeks. Seierstad has created such a thorough and compelling portrait of not just Breivik, but of all the circumstances surrounding July 22, that I can’t help but read as though I don’t know how things end. Seventy-seven people died before Breivik surrendered, and in doing so became a living and breathing villain to hate, a remorseless self-absorbed weirdo with a World of Warcraft addiction and possible mommy issues.
In her book, Seierstad traces Breivik’s upbringing but also that of his parents, as well as the childhoods of some of his victims, whom we see from their infancy all the way through the moments of their deaths. Seierstad spares no detail in her book, which has the meticulous recounting of facts that only a comprehensive review of autopsy reports can provide. What emerges is a picture of a crime most heinous, of a disregard for human life so complete that it’s almost unfathomable. Utøya is small, and doesn’t offer much cover; at first by convincing them he is a police officer, and later with no such pretense, Breivik methodically executed kids, and in his mind was carrying out a righteous obligation on behalf of the future of Norway.
There are a lot of fascinating side-stories to Seierstad’s book, in particular her outlining of the gross missteps by Norwegian authorities after the Oslo bomb and as they prepared an Utøya task force. With all the efficiency of a Three Stooges routine, police took over an hour to get to the island (a mere ferry ride away) as Breivik killed people at a rate of one per minute. It’s an excruciating clusterfuck to watch unfold, and a testament to Norway’s inexperience in handling terror (the entire country has one police helicopter). It’s also hard not to think of the recent attacks in Brussels, a locale equally unprepared for terrorism at scale. Except that Breivik was no jihadist; he was killing his own countrymen.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. The greatest fear I have about The Donald isn’t a Trump presidency. It’s not that I don’t think he has terrifying views, or that the idea of a country with those views in action doesn’t make me want to hibernate forever. I think Donald Trump would be a bad president, but mostly because he’d be an ineffective one—because we’d throw away four years (or eight…Christ, imagine eight) talking about the kinds of things we’ve been talking about for the last four months: insults and machismo, gossip and tweets. We’d spend the better part of a decade trying to solve a problem like Maria, and wouldn’t ever get around to cleaning the convent.
My fear isn’t who Donald Trump becomes as president; my fear is who we become if Donald Trump is setting the example. We become a nation of self-congratulatory, self-absorbed isolationists with a limited understanding of how the world works and a myopic and intolerant perception of multiculturalism. In short, we become a nation of Anders Breiviks. What could possibly go wrong?
TITLE: One Of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
AUTHOR: Asne Seierstad
PAGES: 544 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Bookseller of Kabul, A Hundred and One Day: A Baghdad Journal
SORTA LIKE: We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Helter Skelter
FIRST LINE: “She ran.”