Trilogy of tragedy

Three texts taken together invoke Norway’s darkest day in peacetime.

Magnus Nome
1 September 2012

For those who want to understand the attacks of July 22 2011, three documents shine a light on them, each from a different angle.

Some would argue that these texts offer too little political, philosophical, sociological or historical context to help our understanding of events. But before we try to contextualize and analyse, we need to know the basics. These are the three documents that together form a picture of July 22 – a Trilogy of Tragedy.

The Actions: The verdict

Last Friday’s unanimous verdict in Oslo was the conclusion to a court case that was utterly bizarre and run completely by the book.

A soft spoken, well-mannered terrorist, moved to tears by his own crude propaganda, apologizing for not having been able to kill an even greater number. A prosecutor who decided that there was enough doubt cast on what they had to offer to necessitate a verdict of insanity. In opposite corners: the victims’ lawyer and the defence finding themselves in agreement that these actions were in fact political rather than mad.

The verdict is clearly written with more than the strict requirements of the law in mind; its authors aware of its historical importance as the official account of a national tragedy.

It contains a concise version of the life of the perpetrator and his ideology, and a heart-breaking shot-by-shot account of the fatal day; formal, brief and seemingly never-ending, despite being confined to the murdered and gravely injured.

It also includes the forensic reasoning behind the judgment on sanity, clearly laid out and grounded in law – probably the decisive factor leading to the prosecutor’s unusual step in declaring, on the very same day, that there would be no appeal against the verdict.

Verdict (Google translated, English) Verdict (original, Norwegian)

The Reactions: The fact-finding commission’s report

In August last year, the parliament gave an independent commission the task of dissecting the events, and to establish the readiness and reactions of the country.


Image: Christopher Olssøn. All rights reserved

Earlier this month the results of a thorough investigation were presented in a report full of damning conclusions. While some individuals were reprimanded, most of the failures were systematic.

The risk of terror hadn’t been taken seriously enough – there had been plans for bomb-proofing government quarters for years, but they faded in drawers, nobody feeling ultimately responsible for the project. Both the government and the police are criticized for lack of preparedness, the report leaving the distinct impression of a country going through the motions of preparing for a terror attack, without really believing it would happen. The police computer and communication equipment was woefully inadequate, and the routines for a national crisis in shambles.

Perhaps the most painful example: a post-it note.

A witness saw Breivik in Oslo, dressed as an armed police officer, entering the second car he used to drive to Utøya after having planted the bomb. The witness got suspicious, called the police, and described what he saw, including the number plate. This information was left on a post-it note for 20 minutes before they called him back.

Another ten minutes later the police finally sent out an alert through the national alert system, detailing the vehicle and perpetrator. The system was set up for these kinds of crisis, but hadn’t been relevant before. The alert went unnoticed.

Breivik passed multiple police cars on his drive to Utøya where he murdered 69, but none of the officers knew what to look out for.

Not everything was dysfunctional. The response of the medical emergency services got good marks, and the leadership shown by the Government after the attack had occurred was lauded. Finally there was well-deserved praise for the holiday campers by Tyrifjorden, who jumped into their boats and rescued many of those trying to escape the massacre by swimming through the freezing water.

Extract of report (pdf, English) Full report (pdf, Norwegian)

The Reasoning: The Manifesto

As in the other two cases, Breivik’s 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence is written with the knowledge (or hope) that it would become a document for posterity. It offers an important perspective on the reasoning behind the attack.

It’s not a comfortable read; poorly justified hatred (against muslims, women and anyone remotely left-wing), hagiographical autobiography showing extreme ego and vanity, terror DIY manual, cut-n-paste plagiarism, historical revisionism, faux scholarly writing and dreams of a nationalist-fascist society.


Worst of all, the ominous feeling of reading the words of a human bomb when it was still ticking, quietly, hidden from us and from 77 people no longer alive.

Still there is no better document to understand the world Breivik imagined himself living in, one where he and his own were under threat, so offering him an opportunity to become someone significant. A hero by his own self-definition.

The ideological chapters of the 1518 page document show who it was that inspired Breivik to believe he was living in a civil war. People like Gisèle Littman (aka Bat Ye’or), Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen (aka Fjordman), Robert Spencer and Bruce Bawer cannot be considered directly responsible for a single death. But by feeding their misinformed hate and horrifying fantasy scenarios into the online echo chamber of Islamophobia, they helped Breivik rationalize his simmering hate and gave him something to kill for: the role of misunderstood martyr in shining armour, protecting his people from themselves, even if it meant they would hate him for it.


For more personal and analytical views on the terror, court case and national trauma, watch openDemocracy's video interviews from Oslo.

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