The 32-year-old Norwegian who has confessed to killing more than 70 people requested two things for his court appearance: He wanted to wear a uniform, and he wanted the hearing to be open.
This makes what has happened more complicated. It seems that the man who committed this hideous crime developed a political agenda to defend his actions. He cannot be dismissed simply as a “madman,” he is something more. He regards himself as a soldier and he thinks that he has something important to say.
The question is, what?
Perhaps we can find the answer in a book that the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote during the trial in Israel in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann. For those who do not remember the case, Eichmann had been a much-feared Nazi camp commander who did not hesitate to carry through the orders he received about the mass extermination of the Jews, the Romanies and other people that Hitler thought should be removed from the face of the earth. He had been on the run since Nazi Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945, but was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina and brought secretly to Israel. He was sentenced to death and later executed by hanging.
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt tries to understand the minds of those people who are prepared to indiscriminately kill their fellow humans without empathy. Often they are ordinary people who cherish their gardens and play with their dogs and their children. No one on the street would ever suspect them of being a deranged murderer.
What we know about the man in Norway indicates banality, too. He is torn apart by an inner rage. He is opposed to Muslims. He is opposed to different types of people meeting in a multicultural society. He detests the ambitions of globalism and is willing to attack the very idea of the modern age. He is a cold-blooded Don Quixote tilting at people who live and breathe.
Everything was well planned. On the surface, there was little or nothing to indicate what was about to happen. After he was arrested, he is reported to have described his actions as “heinous, but necessary.” He had launched his own war to “awaken” his fellow countrymen. He wanted to perform in a uniform and he wanted the hearing to become a stage where he could deliver his message.
Perhaps he imagines that, in time, he will become the hero that “saved” Norway. Or perhaps he will be satisfied with being inducted into the hall of fame of human monsters.
We might ask whether we have been waiting for this, a brutal act of terrorism not committed by people who have kidnapped the Islamic faith and who claim to act in the name of that religion, but a man with a different political and religious motive. A right-wing extremist, a nationalist with elements of Christian fundamentalism. One could say that what happened in Norway is a ghastly return of the Ubermensch mentality that was the mark of Hitler’s Nazism which occupied and tortured Norway during World War II.
At least we now know one thing that we might not have been certain of before: People can find the justification for acts of terrorism in all religious, political and ideological contexts. Now we know that those who claimed that terror is always synonymous with the Islamic faith were wrong.
The distant and in many ways idyllic Norway is suddenly exposed to the banality of evil.
It may be impossible to completely defend oneself and one’s country against these actions, but we must try. We must defend the open society, because if we start locking our doors, if we let fear decide, the person who committed the act of terror will win. He will have injected fear into our community. As former US president Franklin Roosevelt put it: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
However hard the young Norwegian man tries to justify his actions, there will still be something that we cannot understand: What goes through the mind of a person who turns a gun against a young woman or man he does not know and pulls the trigger?
In every barbaric act there is a human element. That is what makes the barbaric act so inhuman.
Henning Mankell is a leading Scandinavian novelist and the author of the Kurt Wallander series of crime stories.
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