Book Review: The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer
by Unni Turrettini
Pegasus Books, 2015
On 22 July 2011, a good-looking well-spoken young man named Anders Behring Breivik set off a large bomb outside a government building in Oslo, then drove to the shore Lake Tyrifjorden, called over to the Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the nearby island of Utoya, and told the coordinators there that he was a policeman specially detailed to guarantee their safety in the wake of the Oslo bombing they were only now hearing about. They brought him over on the ferry, noticing his black-on-black SWAT garb and his high-powered rifle, and as soon as he was on the island, he began systematically killing everyone there, including picking off students who, in panic, were trying to swim to safety. Norway-born lawyer Unni Turrettini, in her new book The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer, writes of the killings with a compressed precision that allows their horror to seep through:
He later admitted to having no feelings of remorse as he killed one helpless victim after another. Always the planner, he was determined to circle the entire island. He knew no one would try to stop him, as no one on the island was armed except him. So, his strategy was straightforward; he would get rid of everyone along the way.
Before hunting down the youths feeling into the woods, he darted into the buildings and, in an execution-style manner, shot to death the students too paralyzed with fear to move.
As he shot, he shouted “I’m going to kill you all!”
“Survivors,” she writes, “later spoke of how each moment seemed an eternity as they hid, played dead among the brush and rocks near the beach, or paddled off in the icy water, trying to disappear for just one more click of time, all hoping, praying the man with the gun would cease firing.”
Breivek eventually did stop firing. He notified the Oslo police himself about what he’d done, and he was given the maximum prison term Norway’s law allows (21 years, as opposed to, for instance, being clubbed to death before a capacity audience outside Oslo City Hall). The court sentencing the man guilty of the worst violence Norway had seen since the Nazis was judged to be sane
Nothing in Turrettini’s riveting account of his personal history makes him seem particularly sane, and this is part of her book’s larger and more provocative theme: that “lone wolf” killers like Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and the Boston Marathon bombers only seem like indecipherable anomalies when viewed the stunned aftershock of the wide-scale violence they perpetrate. In their day-to-day lives, Turrettini argues, their behavior often contained enough “red flags” so that vigilant bystanders might have noticed enough to become alarmed, maybe even to prevent the disasters that later ensued. FBI behavioral analyst Kathleen Puckett, in her preface to Turrettini’s book, writes, “She recognizes what Norwegian authorities have preferred to ignore: that privilege and comfort in a society do not eliminate the likelihood of a terrorist blooming in its midst. She is adamant that viewing Breivik as an aberration or as insane only serves to reassure Norway that sleepwalking is the best way to proceed in life.”
In fact, Turrettini lays a significant portion of blame at the doorstep of Norway’s enlightened society:
The Norwegians are so used to being cared for by the state and institutions that they no longer notice one another. The state has removed individual responsibility, and people don’t think it’s up to them to meddle in someone else’s life in any way. The July 22 massacre has not changed their behaviour.
Reading a book such as The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer would be difficult under the best of circumstances; no doubt many readers will find it impossible to face in the wake of Friday the 13th’s massacre of innocents in Paris. And yet, the two tragedies reinforce each other in some ways; massive violence takes careful planning, and careful planning cannot be done entirely out of sight. Turrettini’s broader point is that states are mostly good against other states, but only communities can protect themselves from killers making plans in their midst. And they can only do that, ultimately, by sacrificing the presumptions of goodwill that make them desirable places to live in the first place: vigilance must replace ease; suspicion must replace trust; if you don’t want your reclusive neighbor to concoct a truck bomb, you must act as though he’s already announced his plans to do so. Somewhere, in some Brussels suburb, some neighbor or passerby or social media user almost certainly saw “red flags” of what would lead to the Paris attacks – saw, but didn’t act. Turrettini’s conclusions foreshadow a world in which that kind of complacent blindness will be a thing of the past – or we will all be dead.