Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Åsne Seierstad: One of Us

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In June of this year I went to a talk at the Berkeley Book Festival about the "Roots of Violence." I went because Mac McMclelland was speaking and Adam Hochschild was moderating. The panel discussion was mediocre but one of the panelists,  Åsne Seierstad, was amazing. She framed her talk in the context of #blacklivesmatter, though her story had little to do with the current upheaval. She told the story of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway and how Anders Behring Breivk, the shooter, was captured alive. Not only that, but Norway doesn't have the death penalty: Breivk will die a natural death and possibly be free after the maximum sentence of 22 years. (It turns out the sentence can be renewed, but I didn't know that until reading her book.)

As I left the book talk and looked at twitter, like I do, my feed was blowing up with the story about an officer involved shooting: the Oakland Police Department had shot a man in his car near an offramp by Lake Merritt. As of this moment, it's still not clear why this happened: the man appears to have been passed out, whether due to drugs or sleep, with a gun in the passenger seat. Whether there was an alternate way of safely disarming him or not, the point Seierstad had made was clear: in Norway, a maniacal, homicidal, fanatical man who had killed approximately 80 people was captured alive and given his day in court. In Oakland, a man who had not killed anyone was shot and killed. I had a hard time breathing.

I was eager to read "One of Us" and was not disappointed. The book is fast-paced and hard to put down. There were a couple spots where I felt some discrepancies between the book and the talk, but if you missed the talk, you won't notice these. I was surprised as I felt the talk exaggerated slightly the amazingness of the Norwegian response to Breivk. It's possible that he was captured alive not due to the well-meaningness of the Norwegian police but rather, due to their ineptitude. During the talk, it sounded like Breivk's mother was a psychotic woman who really broke her kid. In the book, it sounds more like he may have been what they now call "on the spectrum," and that mom was emotionally brittle and, by the time of Breivk's terrorist attack, totally off her rocker. In all, the story is a devastating portrait of a man's sad trajectory from poorly performing to fanatically murderous. "One of Us" shows how even the most perfect places can be torn apart by this type of madness.