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The Echo Chamber

The new monsters are different. Like Frankenstein’s creature, they are composed of the philosophical offal of the past century, with all its intellectual hurts and grievances. They have been reanimated, sewn together with the black thread bought in bulk by the far right. Intelligent, eloquent, urbane, they plow their considerable energies into forging new identities online: they write manifestos, spend years planning the details of their killings, stage-manage the propaganda they plan to roll out after their deaths. They – make no mistake – are utterly, utterly pitiless, and they are made right here at home.

We breed them in our kitchens. We hold them close to our hearts. Breivik might himself have been one of the kids he killed.

It makes no difference, now, to those parents, to those siblings, to those friends who survived. The children are dead. It’s one thing to lose your life at the brutal and inexplicable whim of someone else. It is another thing entirely to have to live on in the aftermath. What a comfort it will be to them, to those inconsolable parents, that “compared to 9/11”, this was a medium-sized tragedy, that the real number of fatalities is 68, not 86, but that tally “may increase”.

How they will have these words to hold on to when the memories of their children torment them at every birthday and every Christmas (and it still is Christmas in Norway, folks, despite what Breivik will tell you about the brown tsunami that intends to flood the white Northern lands, drowning the reindeer, muting the bells). At every graduation ceremony and twenty-first birthday and wedding they attend, the ghosts of their children will be hung around the necks of these parents.

Oh, don’t believe the stories about who the real threat is, to you and to your family, to all that you hold dear. In South Africa we know the verses about the swartgevaar. We know the refrain of the Total Onslaught, too, because hard men made sure that we heard it. It was the theme to Apartheid: The Opera! and a chorus of millions hummed the tune.

Except that it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Thanks for nothing, Breivik, you empty-hearted son of a bitch. Now that the act is final, what are we left with? Breivik, Renegade of the Resistance? Breivik, Standard-Bearer of the Knights Templar? No. Breivik, The Oslo Monster, the man who mowed down the children who came to him because he was in a police uniform. Is there any creature more trusting than a Norwegian teen?

Not anymore. When they tried to pick up the surviving kids, they were too afraid to leave the water. The children couldn’t tell if their rescuers had also come to kill them.

There’s lots of talk about what this means for Norway — and, by extension, the West, where we’re still naïve enough to think that personal freedom is a civil right.

It’s not hard to project the fallout: what’s coming is clear. More surveillance. More interference in the lives of citizens, both online and in meat-space. More ID checks, more retina scans, more shoeless security queues wherever two or more of us are gathered together in the name of business or leisure. More funds earmarked for health and education being diverted into bureaucratic R ‘n’ D.

More currency circulating around the bankrupt notion of culture. More clichés about honouring the memory of the fallen. More platitudes about survival. More witless posturing, more writing of online manifestos. More verbosity, more pompousness, more bombast. More blaming the net for being the echo chamber of the insane, as if communities everywhere aren’t producing the same effect.

And less of the only thing that will halt the rise of the white male psycho: empathy. Until we live in a time that we understand – not intellectually, but instinctively – what it is really like to be in someone else’s shoes, the trajectory of the psycho, with his broken family and his grudge against some random group and his moneyed access to high-grade weaponry, will continue.

It will go on as long as there are people smart enough to know that the small kernels of fear we all hold close can be propagated until they bloom, bloody and ferocious, this year’s harvest, and the next. And the next. In Flanders fields the poppies blow.


  • Diane Awerbuck

    Diane Awerbuck's first novel, Gardening at Night, struck it lucky. She writes textbooks and fiction (most recently, Cabin Fever) and reviews books for the Sunday Times. Her doctorate, The Spirit and the Letter: Warblogs, Trauma and the Public Sphere, is due out in 2012, along with another novel.