Before picking up an automatic weapon a man savours a glass or two of a vintage wine. He wants the moment to last. He looks around and sees his surroundings with new eyes. Then comes the police uniform. He masks himself so he can become what he always dreamed of being – the figure of absolute power against an horizon of complete chaos. He stands up, goes out and never comes back home again. The bodies come next, but they are already scattered and mangled parts of the unimpeachable history.
As the news from Norway about the mind-boggling massacre of random victims in island summer camp for young members of the ruling Labour Party gather momentum, one is struck by a sense of shock. It is a normal and expected human reaction, outrage at something so senseless and so incomprehensible that rational thought gives way to extreme emotional reaction. Yet, as more details of the gruesome event pour out, furtive images begin to take shape. Expressions such as “killing spree” and “murderous rampage”, and matter-of-fact accounts in news media of fallen bodies in cold water, mortified teens running for any available cover and the lone gunman yelling into the sun and the sky, and at all the scattered lifeless remains at his feet, “I will kill every last one of you”; all of this brings unexpectedly to mind dark visions of a violent movie.
We are all acquainted with the shot list of such a film and the order in which images appear. First there is a gun, a muzzle staring direcly at us like a cold, nightmarish eye. Then there will be a jittery camera movement, out of focus blur to sharpen senses and to trick our reason. Sub-consciousness then goes to work, taken in by a zoom and music and the reflection of a weapon against the blue sky and a ghost of a smile that smacks of a lurid in-grin. One cannot help but think of films like Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971). The roof tops in the crisp San Francisco heat, the demented giggle in collusion with a sickly summer wind and that grin of an agile madman training his sniper rifle on a clueless city. One can name other scenes from similar films, a trashy gallery of excessive visuals, often iconic and skilfully executed. Or one can think of countless images of infernal chaos on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul, in the aftermath of suicide bomber attacks. The dusky stares and outstretched hands, unhinged expressions on broken faces that belong to a reality so grim and painful, so hard to bear, that to the casual observer they appear as surreal apparitions in the slaughterhouse. We look at the images of horror but what do we really see?
For making an honest attempt to picture oneself in the same situation, to try and identify with the victims, brings an inexplicable sense of sudden and warped confusion. Our minds have been so thoroughly invaded and colonized by artificial impressions of life around us that we have no imagination left to tap into a real and raw interpretation of what we experience. The mind’s eye is left with an endless string all made up of colourful inserts from various movies, flashy snippets of raw footage from the evening news, or even rich hews of splattered blood from various war-themed video games. Instead of an original human reaction, intuitive and visceral, of atavistic dread that is the first sign of an awakened mind in tune with the real world, what we are reduced to is a fine-tuned carousel of stock images. These images are borrowed from the web, TV screens, glossy magazines or DVDs, and they run incessantly through our depleted wits like mental loops. And from that psychological confusion, the mass murderer seems to draw at least in part his vital energy. For how does one begin to fathom all the dark dimensions, and horrendous consequences of the real massacre?
Our culture, our education, our frame of moral references do not prepare us for facing up to this kind of reality. Or for that matter for reality the way it really is. We are brought up and then trained to live peacefully in color-coded bubbles, in hubs of identity, work and entertainment where public and private selves morph in benevolent transparency. We are encouraged to go virtual, to step out of the real world and tune in to the chatter of far off avatars on the web.
Our world is a shifty and complex one, full of mimicry and fear, full of shades of grey and anxiety. But we consider the strange vainglory that comes with the changes in colours of trees and the landscape, the madness of seasons, of the sky opening and closing, as no more than a picturesque backdrop for our casual surfing of the thin air somewhere between fanciful fantasy and selfish sleepwalking.
What we are left with are images. And when it comes to massacres the mind dutifully supplies visuals kept in store, accumulated over the years of voyeuristic pleasures in comforting ignorance. We think in terms of close-ups, in terms of discharge of cool slow motion movements. We see falling bodies but we notice no pain, rather a ballistic stunt that connects a human shape with the geometry of downfall. We see gun wounds as an opportunity to gloat at holes made by wired squibs. We see shots fired but we identify with the flying bullets not with the dying victim. Look no further than the iconic title sequences of the James Bond franchise. Or the Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008), where a neurotically mobile camera seems to be placed on the back of an unstoppable shell. For we live in the world of winners and losers, where indomitable projectiles always win, and gadgets rule over fickle human emotions.
One of the most memorable scenes in Dirty Harry involves his Magnum .44. The leading protagonist, hard-headed police inspector Harry Callahan played with subdued bravado by Clint Eastwood, carries the piece like a physical equivalent of his complete moral superiority. In one of the most iconic scenes of the film, he points the empty revolver at a wounded bank robber lying on the pavement after a shootout. The helpless criminal in the pool of his own blood is a black man. His hard eyes have known bad luck long enough to turn the demon of bitterness into a permanent feature of his stare. His outstretched fingers are itching to pick up the tossed rifle within his reach. He is almost there; sure that the white man’s revolver had run out of ammo. But then there is a smile, a thin shiny line across an unforgiving face, insolent, and his trembling fingers hesitate.
The whole film is about that smile, that smile that opens a whole new horizon of dark possibilities. For what we see is not just the man performing his duty, the inspector answering the call, but the devil in gumshoe outfit revelling in mayhem, enjoying every passing second of holding the cold steel pointed at the helpless flesh. And if anyone speculates about how Anders Behring Breivik’s face might have looked like in those fateful moments of pure horror, as he emptied his overheated magazine at the ravished bodies of perfect strangers, think of the famous and often quoted lines: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well do you, punk?” For what effectively follows is an orgy of violence. A lonely shooter takes on the whole god damn ugly world. The sun that does not shine bright enough for him, the devilish ennui of his own mediocrity and the ethnic hoodlums at the gates of his superior but mindless reality. He fires his weapon and the blast deafens all other din and simultaneously eliminates all other considerations.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Norway there were speculations about likely perpetrators. Initially there were hushed speculations about possible Al Qaeda involvement. Ayman Al-Zawahri had threatened Norway because of its support for the war effort in Afghanistan. Ostensibly, we cannot help but presume what is in our mind’s eye inevitably the worst that can happen; in this case that where unspeakable deeds take place, some no good Arabs are not far away. What we culturally cannot fathom, process and digest, sooner or later becomes the object of disdain, or even hate. Breivik’s putative political agenda, his right wing vision of a clash of civilizations, his manifesto of doom published online just before he took off into the real life enactment of the deadly movie running through his head, are just extreme manifestations of a wider phenomenon. The “war on terror” at first and then the financial shock of global economic crisis, combined with the general sense of looming uncertainty, have surreptitiously radicalized our way of perceiving “the other”.
As the killer entered the summer camp near Oslo, an unsuspecting but ostensibly agitated woman approached him. She had heard bad news about deadly blasts in the capital and assumed the worst. She wanted to get more precise information about what went down but also, and perhaps more likely, to be reassured by a figure of authority. And like a doomed moth, she came to the place of brightest illumination within her surroundings. The fake policeman appeared, to her perception of reality, to her frame of mind, accustomed to taking things at their face value, as the genuine article. And the devil smiled. He could not have helped it, despite of the butterflies in his stomach, despite of the pressure of the unbearable moment, of the inevitable closeness of his own grim end. He smiled. She came, he thought, to the right place. Not only did he know who set off the explosions, he could have read the woman’s fortune through the muzzle of his gun.
The first shot went into her chest and once down the second one blew her head clean off, just like in the action movie. Yet one cannot help but wonder about that unsuspecting perception that immediately preceded the woman’s death, and about our general confusion concerning appearances that has been gravely accelerated by the moving images and now the Internet. For had the figure in the uniform been say Black or of Arab descent, the victim might have had second thoughts. She might have taken stock of the situation, seen the arsenal of weapons Breivik was carrying, not as a means of protection but as a warning sign. Perhaps then, she would have noticed the glaring oddness and strange bearing of the lonely man. Perhaps then she would have run for her life instead of approaching to get informed. But our downfall is in our contemporary inability to read what is obvious, in our subtle, built-in prejudice, in archetypes of meaning by which we live and die.
We still would like to believe that evil is in the shadows, on the other side of the street, not here, now and in the plain sight lolling, frolicking, mocking us and daring us to do something about it. We live in wilful fantasy. We enjoy and revel in our collective complacency, our comforts and our living standards. Bad things are happening to distant “other”, in places of underdevelopment, far off beyond the horizon of reassuring transparency and accepted morals. We cannot fathom that the white man that appears normal with his casual, agreeable attitude and clean looks can also be an agent of life as we don’t know it, of death. How could he be a wilful purveyor of the dark side, plain shallow to the point of being devoid of all inner grace or true feelings, to be so messed up and tormented on the inside, when his front looks so respectable and innocuous?
Yet precisely thanks to misleading appearances, to those easily digestible shells of exterior personality, Anders Behring Breivik succeeded in carrying out his dismal act of terror. The key to it was his double life, his furtive dark mirror self. On the surface of it he had it all – baby-face good looks, an excellent education that guaranteed a prosperous future and a comfortable if aimless existence in one of the best countries in the world. He could have been an American Idol contestant or a youthful European Union bureaucrat working on human rights issues. Anything. The doors for a profile like his, the set of facial features that beam with benevolent mediocrity, are always open. On some of the photographs published after the massacre, he appears smiling, clearly not because he felt like it but rather because such an attitude was expected of him. Standards of normality in our happily well-off societies include facial expressions that suggests a sunny disposition, an uncomplicated positivity that embraces team spirit and goes with the flow.
We connect seriousness of countenance with poverty and suffering in unfortunate countries of the Third World. One who thinks too deep or tries too hard must be some kind of weirdo, an emotional freak with rats up the attic. But Breivik’s face on the photos from before the massacre is so common, so unremarkable and unmarked by any real experience that it is immediately forgettable. And that quality of blending in, of mingling ever so inconspicuously and inoffensively with the lowest common denominator, of fitting in with the common clichés of the surroundings, paradoxically opened the doors for an inner drifter, a darker, harder self to come out. Like so many young people of the same background and similar lifestyle, he enjoyed blogging, listening to pop music and playing video games. His favourite TV show was True Blood. In the crowd he would never attract attention or stand out. But that very anonymity of his personality, his apparent inoffensiveness, was, it seems, the key to his rage, to his energy of terror, to his demonic zeal and finally to the wine before the massacre.
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.