- Åsne Seierstad's En av oss:Perpetrator and Victim in the Construction of National Innocence
Although originally written in Norwegian and only later translated to English, Åsne Seierstad's 2013 book, En av oss. En fortelling om Norge (translated by Sarah Death and published in 2015 as One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway), appears, as critic Jon Rognlien (2013) asserts, largely to have been written with an international audience in mind. Seierstad is a journalist and foreign correspondent who has achieved international recognition for her nonfiction book Bokhandleren i Kabul (2002; The Bookseller of Kabul ), which examined conditions in Afghanistan at the outset of the recent war from the perspective of one Afghan family. En av oss is also a book-length nonfiction investigation of a national trauma, though, in this case, the national trauma, the terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011, took place in Seierstad's own homeland rather than abroad. Seierstad has since gone on to publish To søstre (2016; Two Sisters ), which explores the lives of two young Norwegian-Somalian women who choose to join the Islamic State in Syria.
In terms of the factual details presented about the sole perpetrator of the attacks in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, En av oss offers little that Norwegian readers had not already learned through previous publications, such as Kjetil Stormark's Da terroren rammet Norge. 189 minutter som rystet verden (2011; When Terror Came to Norway: 189 Minutes That Shook the World), which appeared only months after the massacre in the Fall of 2011; Aage Storm Borchgrevink's En norsk tragedie. Anders Behring Breivik og veiene til Utøya (2012; translated by Guy Puzey as A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya ); [End Page 1] or the official report of the commission that evaluated the response of government agencies to the attacks, Rapport fra 22. juli-kommisjonen (Gjørv et al. 2012; Report from the 22 July Commission). Yet despite the relatively modest amount of new material offered by Seierstad, the book has sold equally well domestically and abroad, and thus clearly also serves a domestic purpose. In the following, I explore this domestic purpose, positing that En av oss functions as a narrative about national innocence in which both perpetrator and victims play key roles.
The domestic discourse surrounding the terrorist attacks of 22 July1 has been dominated by convictions about Norwegian exceptionalism and underpinned by the widely held belief that Norway is somehow more ethical and less to blame for global social injustices than the rest of Western society. Terje Tvedt calls this rationalization of Norwegian interests and interventions a "godhetsregime" [regime of goodness], which he describes as "et dominant normlegitimerende og normpro- duserende regime hvor forestillinger og retorikk om godhet regulerer systeminterne relasjoner og gir systemet dets grunnleggende eksterne legitimitet" (2003, 34) [a dominant regime that legitimizes and produces norms for which representations and rhetoric about goodness regulate the internal relations of the system and give the system its fundamental external legitimacy].2 This form of Norwegian exceptionalism is predi- cated on social democratic ideology, and it was precisely these ideals that the perpetrator set out to attack when he bombed the buildings that housed the coalition government led by the Labour Party and shot to death participants at the annual Labour Party youth camp.
It has become a truism that Norway lost its innocence on that summer day. I am interested in examining the conceptual limits of that innocence and how it is constructed through narrative, with Seierstad's En av oss as a particularly apt example. There are three components to my analysis of how Seierstad frames questions of guilt and innocence in En av oss. The first concerns the degree to which Anders Behring Breivik was or was not portrayed in public discourse as a "monster," [End Page 2] a loaded term often applied to perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes. The second concerns the question of whether Breivik can be considered to be an ideologue who acted out of political conviction. Finally, I explore the degree to which Seierstad portrays the state as in...