Anders Breivik arriving in the courtroom in May. Photograph: Getty Images
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The grotesque manipulations of Anders Breivik

Åsne Seierstad questions a system that gives Anders Breivik publicity.

On 24 August, the verdict against Anders Behring Breivik will be pronounced at Oslo District Court. He has acknowledged having murdered 77 people and destroyed government buildings in Oslo last July but does not accept that he is guilty of any crime. This past week, others got the blame for not stopping his acts, including the man Breivik wanted to crush.

The perpetrator of the bombing and massacre was relegated to a minor role this month in Oslo. The words “blame” and “guilt” were frequently employed but this time not aimed at Breivik. The 22 July commission, an independent inquiry, has delivered its report to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and, with it, devastating conclusions. The attack on Stoltenberg’s offices in the government area could have been prevented, its report claims, if measures already approved had been implemented. The authorities failed to protect the people who were massacred at a Labour Party youth camp on Utøya. Quicker police action was feasible and Breivik could have been stopped much earlier.

The report describes an almost total collapse in the planning and execution of the police action. Co-ordination failed totally and fatally: no nationwide alert, no roadblocks or observation posts set up, no attempt made to mobilise helicopters. The police work was worthy of a “failed state”, not the smoothly organised country we thought we lived in, the commentator Anders Giæver wrote.

The commission’s presentation included almost unbearably sad details, such as the witness who had seen Breivik leaving the bomb area with a gun in his hand. The witness called in the correct number of Breivik’s licence plates only ten minutes after the bombing. The operator wrote the message on a yellow Post-it note and it was given to the co-ordinator, but then left on a desk while Breivik drove out of town. For a long stretch of road he had a police car driving right behind him, suspecting nothing, as the message hadn’t been relayed further. Had he been stopped then, the whole massacre on Utøya could have been prevented.

The failures are numerous: the first policemen to arrive at the lakeside, 600 metres from Utøya island, never attempted to get a boat across to try to stop the killer, even though instructions said they should. The special police sent from Oslo passed them and drove three kilometres further due to a misunderstanding about the agreed meeting place, where they overloaded their dinghy so heavily that it almost sank and civilian boats had to come to their rescue. That was a good thing, as the police, for a while, had been heading to the wrong island.

Breivik killed on average one person every minute. So many lives could have been spared if the police work had been more efficient. Who is to blame? Whose head should roll? Who is to carry the burden of guilt?

Breivik must be rejoicing in his cell, where he has access to all the major Norwegian papers. The main headline in the tabloid newspaper VG after the inquiry made its presentation sent a not-so-subtle message to the prime minister: “Stoltenberg should go”. Breivik’s stated goal is to “crush the Labour Party”. Now the prime minister, who previously was hailed for his leadership after the attacks, is under sharp criticism for the lack of national security measures. Stoltenberg was praised when he spoke, soon after the massacre, of meeting the horror with more “openness, more humanity, but never naivety”. That last word has returned to haunt him. Because we weren’t prepared.

Notice me

So, how do we handle the man who is truly guilty? Are we prepared to punish the culprit in keeping with the standards of his crime?

Up till now, the killer has got everything he could wish for. The former high-school dropout – the nobody – became a somebody. The one who “was always there” but whom most people never remembered, has at last been noticed. Breivik has achieved worldwide notoriety. For the first time in his life he is undoubtedly uppermost in his father’s mind; the father who cut contact with him when he was 15.

To take the psychoanalytic approach: Anders grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who could oscillate between sweet talk and screaming her hatred for her son in a split second. But Anders quickly learned how to manipulate her and as the years passed the motherson power balance shifted in his favour. He later played these tricks skilfully on his captors, on the police and on the judges in court.

When finally the police captured him – three minutes after they arrived on the island, but having spent about an hour to get there – the first thing he said to the policeman sitting on top of him was: The quicker we can start the questioning, the sooner we can start negotiating. If you want to save 300 lives, you should listen to me carefully.

This negotiating tactic produced, among other things, access to a personal computer and a printer. During the trial his negotiations with the judge, Wenche Elisabeth Arntzen, showed similarities to those of a little boy with his mother. When Arntzen tried to cut the reading of his opening speech, which was filled with anti-Islamic rhetoric, he said: If you don’t let me read my full manuscript, I won’t talk at all. She gave in on the first day of the trial, and let him continue until he was through.

Now, in prison, waiting for his judgment, nothing prevents him from continuing to spread his message, freshly written every week on his cherished computer, then printed out and mailed to his followers. According to his lawyer, Breivik spends between eight and ten hours a day working. When the trial was over, at the end of June, he finally found time to sit down to read the 600 letters he had received from around the world, most of them from right-wing extremists in Germany, Sweden, Britain and Russia. VG got hold of two letters that Breivik recently sent; they were exact copies of each other; only the names differed.

In the letters, Breivik explained how he plans to keep fighting against the values of Norwegian society. Those same values that gave him a fair trial, lax treatment in prison and even the right to keep spreading his message. He writes in the letters that he plans three books: the first about the attack, the second about his ideology and the third about the future.

He is also forming a think tank named “Conservative Revolutionary Movement” and in a letter to a Russian follower he writes: “My goal is to develop a pan-European prison network consisting of European, patriotic martyrs and other politically motivated prisoners.” As he explained in his manifesto before the terror act, a trial is the best way to spread his message and so, up to now, everything has been going to plan.

As long as he or she doesn’t promote anything criminal, a prisoner in Norway has freedom of speech and the right to communicate with the outside world. All prisoners in Norway remain eligible to vote in elections. Breivik is careful in his letters not to advocate violence. But his very signature on a letter concerning a “conservative revolutionary movement” could be seen as an instigation to violence. He has often repeated that his mission is not over and, when asked in court whether he regrets his actions, has answered bluntly, “The only thing I regret is that I didn’t kill more people.”

His ten-week trial became a seminar of psychiatrists. In court, out of court, in the media, at conferences, the psychiatrists were quarrelling about differing diagnoses of mental illness that could be made on the mass murderer. All his apparent symptoms were analysed carefully by the forensic psychiatrists and the two teams appointed by the court came to opposite conclusions. The first team was convinced Breivik had been suffering from psychosis during his killing spree and thus can’t be punished according to Norwegian law. The second team concluded that he had been sane and can be punished for his crime. In Norway, putting a sick person in prison is considered a worse crime than treating a sane person on a psychiatric ward. This is one reason court psychiatrists wield greater power than their colleagues do in courtrooms in other countries.

Our system also dictates that, once a mentally ill person has been treated and declared sane, he must be allowed to go free. In most other countries he would then have to face the punishment for his crime. Curiously, in this case, neither health professionals at the prison nor any of the members of the observation team put together by the second couple of court psychiatrists has found any sign of psychotic behaviour. Synne Sørheim, from the first team of court psychiatrists, said during the trial that she is a “treatment optimist” and would treat Breivik with medication and conversation. It is hard to see what she will treat. His right-wing extremist ideas? His violent behaviour? His sense of being at war with social democracy and multiculturalism, evoking the “principle of necessity”?

One thing is clear, however – whatever the judgment is, Breivik will stay in the same topsecurity prison outside Oslo, in the three cells furnished for him. Should he be found insane, the health professionals will treat him inside the prison, a departure from the normal procedure of moving the patient to a hospital.

Breivik’s joint cells were recently classified by his lawyers as one sleeping cell; one “working cell”, with a writing desk, computer and printer; and one “fitness cell” with a treadmill. Breivik has said that he wants to study political science in prison and he has asked his followers to send him books and articles criticising the multicultural society and to enclose stamps. He has also asked for help from local rightwing bloggers willing to work with him. His computer is – unfortunately for him – offline but he doesn’t need his own blog: he can write letters, and others can post them on the web.
This past week, an anonymous letter from one of Breivik’s followers was sent to Norwegian newsrooms, signed by the “second cell of Breivik” acting under his influence.

Breivik has planned this well, his rise to fame from an early bleak life. He corrected “unemployed” to “writer” when asked for his status the first day in court. And this writer is certainly in a unique situation. What other terrorist in the world can sit in his cell and freely spread his propaganda, facilitated by the prison’s own equipment?

There is one thing that Breivik fears: that he will be judged insane. This would take away his aura of being an ideologue, a political prisoner. He would then just be a nobody again. Most of the surviving victims see the harshest punishment for him as isolation. They hope that someone will take away his computer, restrict his letter-writing and leave him alone in his cell with his thoughts and his guilt.

Åsne Seierstad is writing a book about the events of 22 July 2011 in Norway, to be published next autumn.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.