A minor point concerning the Norwegian tragedy

Words are too small to express one’s feelings about the hideous slaughter in Norway. Rather than trying to address tragedy on such a scale, I shall focus on a minor point.

Anders Behring Breivik has, as I understand things at the time of writing, freely admitted responsibility for this appalling event. His lawyer has, I further understand, confirmed that he is the author of the work 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence, published online under the Anglicised name of Andrew Berwick. It seems that he has perpetrated this dreadful crime for the purpose of promoting this work.

There are certain obfuscations about the presentation of the work, which was initially circulated by email to his Facebook friends, and friends-of-friends. The most obvious are the Anglicised name and the assertion that the book was published in London, when it is actually the work of a Norwegian publishing from Oslo. I assume that these obfuscations were inserted as a way of ensuring that his identity remained secret until he chose to reveal it in the way he did.

But there is one little detail revealed by its absence. It is said that somebody who wishes to avoid drawing attention to something may reveal that wish by failing to mention that something when it would be perfectly natural to do so. Breivik seems to have succumbed to this simple psychological trap in his attempt to conceal the place of origin of his work behind the veil of England.

In his introduction he signs off (as Andrew Berwick) with the words:

With the assistance from brothers and sisters in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the US etc.

Do you notice anything about that list of countries? With the exception of “the US” they are all European. In fact, they cover Europe from the Atlantic to the Baltic. Yet one in particular is missing; one that might be expected to appear, given that Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are all mentioned.

The only Scandinavian country not mentioned is Norway. Exactly the one you’d miss out if you were lying about where you were, and where you were was Norway.

I’m not trying to suggest anything about this other than the fact that, with hindsight, we can see a classic signal of somebody trying to conceal a truth. Breivik claims to have spent three years, at a personal cost of €317 000, in writing his work; yet for all his obvious intelligence, dedication, and cunning he was unable to avoid one of the most basic traps our own psychology lays for us: compulsively avoiding saying something that could get him into trouble, even though he would be more likely to deflect attention if he said it openly.

This is one of the ways our mothers can tell that we are lying when we are four years old, and juries can tell that we are lying when we are forty years old.

Of course, even if one of the few early recipients of Breivik’s work had noticed this anomaly, they could not have predicted the enormity of his intentions. It might have provided a momentary intellectual frisson similar to solving a crossword clue: “Ah, he’s probably Norwegian really!” But it’s not as if this knowledge would have made it possible to prevent the tragedy; we can never conceive of such enormity until after it has been perpetrated.

I only mention this as a psychological curiosity: a man so fanatically dedicated to his cause that he will plot to murder, not just by the indiscriminate method of bombing but by personally shooting children by the dozen, and can intellectually justify this to himself as necessary for promoting said cause, is nonetheless unable to lie in a document to which he has devoted three years of effort without betraying the truth by omitting the one name he knows others must not know.