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I Survived Anders Breivik’s Terrorist Attack. But His Politics Are Still With Us.

This day in 2011, far-right terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 69 people at the Norwegian Labor Party’s youth camp on Utøya island. A survivor of the attack writes about how he escaped — and the danger that Breivik’s far-right politics still represent today.

Ali Esbati, now an MP for the Swedish Left Party, survived Anders Breivik's terror attack on the island of Utøya on July 22, 2011. (Nikolaj Jonas Blegvad / Wikimedia Commons)

I step out to the water’s edge. The sparse vegetation opens onto a small beach of large, flat rocks. The sun is shining a little more generously. It’s almost like arriving at a destination you didn’t really know was there. A feeling of relief and calm spreads through my body.

To my right, a group of young people, sitting and standing. Unlike how I feel, they seem scared and tired.

The lights flashing from somewhere across the water are almost hypnotizing. Next to me, low-key conversations are going on. Some people are talking to each other; some are on the phone. Just waiting for rescue, for resolution.

Then everything goes very fast — but also infinitely slow. It’s only a brief flash of time, a few seconds that suddenly explode, like an airbag, with images, sounds, and thoughts.

I don’t know if I turn because I hear the noise, or if it’s the reactions of others around me that make me spin around and look back toward the island. The rustling sound of a body moving through vegetation. I look up, a little to the side of the point where I had myself come down to the rocky beach.

There’s a large man standing there. Broad and tall. He’s a few meters away, dressed in black. A guard’s uniform? In that split second, this is one of the things that stirs my reaction; that I think I see he’s got the uniform of a security guard, not a policeman. And the hair. As the light falls, it almost appears that he has a dark blond rooster comb. Not the long, upright punk variety, but a flat, short-cropped one, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, he looks dangerous. He’s carrying a gun. A long, black rifle pointing downward. I have time to wonder if he’s taped the handle for a better grip — it looks a bit lighter there.

His face expresses no emotion. Maybe he’s sweaty and a bit tired. But there is no pain, no cheer, no fear. No complexity. Just a man at work in the woods.

Now it’s all happening at once.

Doubt is suddenly unleashed in my body. I can almost feel the nerve fibers carrying the message down to my heart, back up to my head and out into my arms and legs. Something is wrong. This can’t be the police, can it?

His clear, calm cry — I’m not quite sure what he’s saying, but I think I see his mouth forming into an O. “It’s the police,” I think. Maybe, “stay calm.”

The movement with the gun. The leg position shifting slightly. The arm being raised and, with it, the muzzle of the rifle.

The sound of gunshots. Many. Sharp. Definitive.

Suddenly, I’ve turned around again, not really knowing when or how. The sounds have changed character again. It’s like putting in earplugs. The noise disappears, and I hear my own blood pounding and hissing, really hissing, in my veins. Loud noises become dull thuds. My field of vision is narrowed — focused. I see a short distance ahead.

My body wants to get away. I run diagonally left, seen from the island — seen by the man with the gun. So I move along the water’s edge, but a little bit into the water. The sea takes in my trouser legs. I fall, get up, fall, take a few clumsy swims, half standing, half lying down, feeling the rocks under my feet and the water hitting my face.

Conscious again, I’m convinced I’ll probably die. While I’d increasingly realized that we’re in a dangerous situation, I’d remained confident that I’d be fine, that I’d make it. Now, suddenly, it’s the other way around. Wordlessly, this sentence takes form in my head: “It’s fucked.”

It’s not an action film, it’s a horror movie filmed with a handheld camera.

They say that, in near-death situations, you see your life flash before your eyes. It’s not like that now. My experience is physical. My muscles tense up. I try to anticipate the sensation of a bullet blasting its way through my back. Instinctively, I bend my head down — my body prefers a shot in the back to my brain. To my mind’s eye, I see myself falling forward into the water, which turns red next to my body. I have time to mentally process the possibility of escaping drowning in a bullet-riddled state.

I can’t tell if I can hear any more shots, shouts, or screams as I splash through the water. This information’s either not collected or erased from the memory stores I can access. My senses begin to work again once I’m a few dozen meters away. Here, I lie down behind a very small bush at the water’s edge. I’m now lying, on my stomach, on the stone mound, which water is washing up against. Most of my body is in the water, with my head and arms above it. I look back to where I saw him and where I ran into the water. He’s not there. Or, in any case, I don’t see him.

A Lone Wolf?

He did it alone. There were no terrorist accomplices who simultaneously struck elsewhere. No “templars” materialized in the streets to ride to Breivik’s defense. The terrorist’s manifesto was not a document voted on at some smoky leadership meeting of an underground organization. He was not out to demand the release of “political prisoners,” or to get a seat at some negotiating table.

So shouldn’t we say the story came to an end with the handcuffing of Anders Behring Breivik at 6:35 p.m. on July 22, 2011? Or some days later, when the hearings and investigations made it reasonably clear how he had procured explosive materials and planned his performative mass murder? Or at least when the prison sentence against him was confirmed on August 24, 2012?

To draw that conclusion would be willfully ignorant. It would also give the man Anders Behring Breivik a much greater role than he deserves. Because while Breivik is in prison and can hardly leave any more lasting impression on the world through his actions, the rest of us are still living in that world. We who carry the wounds and the memories. We who can and must relate to the society that shapes our everyday lives and our hopes, and which we, through our actions, affect and pass on.

We cannot regard the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011, as an accident — as if it were something surely grotesque and tragic but disconnected from the social processes that preceded and followed it; a firefly that lights up and goes out in the night of contemporary history. No, terror must be understood “politically,” in the broad sense of the word: as part of our intertwined lives, inevitably dependent on historically conditioned institutions, relationships, and perceptions.

When it comes to the July 22 terror attack, there is also an extensive self-declaration that needs to be set in its proper political context. Breivik’s manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence — his “magnum opus” sent out just before he drove the bomb into Oslo — is a mixture of “essays” of political and historical stamp, a description of preparing acts of violence (the ones he would actually carry out, but also others) and the construction of a kind of persona, with a distorted genesis story written into a battle epic.

To anyone approaching this 1,500-plus-page “work” with no prior political knowledge, it may certainly seem like nothing more than a bizarrely long, incoherent, and poorly written compendium. And it is. But what is most striking is that the manifesto is, to such a great degree, not the product of the would-be mass murderer’s own personal creativity and imagination. Rather, the material is, in the main, directly cut and pasted from an existing political milieu. One in which books are written, blogs are blogged, comments are made, figures and claims are spread, conspiracy theories are woven, and news is interpreted. Precisely because it is a compilation, the manifesto gives us “a glimpse into Breivik’s library,” in the words of professor of religious history Mattias Gardell. We thus also get to see the pack that this “lone wolf” came from.

This also points toward the importance of a political understanding of the terrorist act. On the most obvious level, such an understanding can, in the best case, reduce the risk of similar acts happening again.

Terrorism is, by definition, the use of violence and the creation of fear in order to advance social or political goals. Recognizing the worldview in which it becomes advisable or “necessary” to deploy targeted political violence also makes it easier to recognize the currents that drive people to such action

The political context in which the July 22 terror attack can be set also highlights Breivik’s method. The fact that his preparations for the attack went largely under the radar of his surroundings cannot be explained away by the fact that they were unique in design and historically unprecedented. Indeed, ideologically dedicated but organizationally autonomous terrorism is precisely the preferred approach of the kind of white power milieu from which Breivik also drew intellectual and moral nourishment.

An operative understanding of the political context around the terrorist act is thus an important tool for effective policing and institutional action. This is indispensable for the resistance that ultimately counts most — a social and political resistance.

This brings us to another, broader reason why it is important to be able to put the July 22 attack in a wider context and to draw lessons from it.

At best, an event as exceptional and abhorrent as the July 22 terror attack could have shone a light on the strange political environments and processes that existed before the act and that exist after it. Not only because it might help to avoid potential acts of extreme violence in the future, but also because they affect society even on all the days when they don’t lead to mass murder. For it’s clear that racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are phenomena that do something to people every day; that produce and reproduce divisions and alienation, harassment and inequality.

I write that “in the best case” it will reduce the risk of future attacks. For this is hardly an automatic outcome. It is itself subject to a political tug-of-war. When, on the second anniversary in summer 2013, I was asked to write about my experiences of the aftermath of the attack, I tried to think through how that tug-of-war had unfolded. At the time, I felt it was clear that Norwegian society had not been able to properly process the event. “Instead, the very horror of the crime has quickly made it more difficult to counter Islamophobic and ultra-reactionary advances,” I wrote. For the implicit reasoning is that there is such a mile-wide difference between the petty everyday racism of the public and Breivik’s mass murder that dealing with the former would itself be petty.

Now that another eight years have passed, it is fair to say that this tug-of-war continues. Understanding racist violence as a spectrum — from things that are not even violence in a physical or legal sense but that diminish, impede, and tear people down, all the way to deadly terror and genocide — requires some understanding of what social structures are. It requires, at the very least, a willingness to listen to and empathize with those who are likely to be most negatively affected by it. And that understanding is, of course, politically charged; challenging social hierarchies and power ambitions.

Resistance

The rise of right-wing populist and radical-right movements, the traditional bourgeoisie’s convergence with them, and the consequent transformation of the political terrain, in country after country, in many ways define our times. This has been accompanied, in public life in much of the world — including the Scandinavian welfare states — by a rise, a normalization, of racist and reactionary rhetoric and social views.

Anyone who wants to understand — and perhaps participate in the defense against — these developments must relate to the era that can be called neoliberalism, the era that politically has such visible pioneering figures as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. To mention only some of its most important effects, this means widening socioeconomic gaps with a very small group of superrich super-winners, the transformation of Western economies through the decline of manufacturing and the rise of service occupations, an exceptional increase in the influence of the financial sector over national economies, chronic pressure on previously expanded welfare and pension systems, the atomization and precarization of working life for certain strata, and the decline in union membership in most industrialized countries.

In our part of the world, at the same time, there has been a seemingly strong convergence in economic policy between the traditional political blocs that once set center-left against center-right. For many voters, it has appeared that much the same economic policies will always happen, regardless of which parties win elections and form governments. It is precisely in this landscape that right-wing populist and radical right forces have been able to find their space.

With each passing year, it becomes clearer that these forces are emerging as a “solution” to the societal fissures left by neoliberalism; one in which the economic mechanisms that produce social disruption and atomization are left essentially undisturbed, while conflicts and boundaries based on ethnic and cultural differences become more attractive to exploit and reinforce. This has also characterized the developments of the last decade.

These forces are pulling more forcefully at the heart of society than proclamations of consensus and displays of unity and understanding can do. But, at the same time, this is not the only dynamic in our societies — not the only game in town. I look around me and see defeats and setbacks but also resistance and hope. There is such tremendous power in people’s refusal to live in an orderly fashion. In all those encounters between people that make you see yourself in others — encounters surrounded by basic decency, that generate the very glue that holds societies together, makes them better, more civilized. It is that resistance we can all decide to strengthen, that hope we can choose to nourish.