On Thursday evening, I went to a neighbor’s house to watch the news. It was Anders Behring Breivik I wanted to see. I had seen innumerable images of him already, of course, read innumerable articles — even what he himself had posted on the Internet before he detonated a bomb in Oslo and drove out to the island of Utoya, where he executed 69 defenseless people. In the nine months that have passed since then, his image has been a constant in my life — as it has for all Norwegians.
But to get an impression of the nature of a person, one has to see him in motion. So much is contained in the posture of the body, the position of the hands, the movement of the eyes. I had no idea what sort of charisma Breivik had. How he would react to the situation he found himself in. For some reason, this seemed important. So I sat down with my neighbor Bo, and there was Breivik on the screen, filmed listening to his defense attorney. His body was relaxed, and his eyes expressed first surprise, as if he didn’t believe what he was hearing, then intensity, and something like eagerness.
“What I don’t understand,” Bo said, “is why the whole case has to be taken up again in the minutest detail. He has admitted he did it — couldn’t they just pass sentence?” It’s a good question. The murders were politically motivated. Why give him a platform? The endless reports, what do they lead to except numbness, a kind of horror-struck paralysis?
An opinion poll published before the court case showed that two out of three Norwegians felt the media coverage was too extensive. I was among them. And yet I was drawn to the screen to see him, the perpetrator of the crime. Why? Not out of pity with the victims and the bereaved. More out of curiosity — who is this monster?
When I first learned what had happened on Utoya that day last July, I felt none of that distance. Despair welled up in me, wild and sudden. I wept. In the images from the island, there was light, and I knew that light — it was the light of a Norwegian fjord on a rainy day. The dark green pine trees by the water’s edge were well known to me, the gray-white bare-faced rocks and the sea, heavy and motionless and also gray. There, in the midst of everything familiar, lay dead bodies, covered with plastic. Someone had walked around on this island shooting children and young people. Their lives had been extinguished. Oh God in heaven, one light after the other.
But in the weeks that followed, everyday life reasserted itself, the disaster became something one talked about, discussed and made political capital out of. And the murderer became a face that sold newspapers.
While I am writing this, he is sitting in jail. Perhaps he is lying awake, thinking about what he will say in court or what he has said so far. Perhaps he is well satisfied. He has put in a controlled, rational performance. He has been allowed to give a detailed account of his ideology, his preparations. He has said that his acts are against human nature and that in order to overcome it, he has made use of various techniques. He severed all links to other people, he desensitized himself, as he called it, and dehumanized his victims, shooting them as he had shot down enemies in computer games.
This distance, the turning away from society, has made him uncorrectable. The biblical account of Cain and Abel says: “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, lift up, and if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.’ ” To turn away — which is not just not seeing but also not being seen — is dangerous: in that space, sin gathers. For Breivik, the victims were nobodies, with one exception: on Utoya one of the children turned around, looked straight at him, and said that he should not kill him — and Breivik did not kill him. The victim was no longer nobody but somebody.
What he perhaps dimly realizes as he lies in the cell is what will happen when the trial shifts from him and his picture of the world, this rigorously maintained fiction, to the 77 victims. One by one, an account will be given of their deaths. The dead bodies he left scattered on the street, around the forest and the rocks, in the water and on the shore, the weight of all these bodies, and not just bodies but also the names — the naming of which will bring memories back to loved ones of laughter, voices and shouts, joy and sorrow, but first and foremost of hope now lost — when this weight makes its impact, nothing of what Breivik has said will be of any importance.
His testimony, his ideas, his conception of the world will turn to nothing. Possibly, he will be able to resist even that, but the trial is for us, not for him. We shall see him as he is, a human being like you and me, and we shall see what he has done. And we shall try to understand. The dangerous thing is the distance, the confusing of the picture of the world with the real world, the turning away from the other person. And it is this that the court case, with its emphasis on formalities and its equality of treatment, confronts. Our task is to witness it, to allow the weight of reality to break through the picture and correct it. And never, never the reverse.
Karl Ove Knausgaard is the author of the forthcoming autobiographical novel My Struggle: Book One. This essay was translated by John Irons from the Norwegian.