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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood