NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
It may be months before we know the details of exactly what happened inside the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a week ago. But with the benefit of time, GQ correspondent Sean Flynn has given us new perspectives on the massacre in Norway, where Anders Breivik murdered 77 people and wounded many more almost exactly a year ago. After he set off a bomb outside government offices in downtown Oslo, Breivik shot dozens, mostly teenagers at a summer camp on an isolated island named Utoya.
Sean Flynn describes what he calls the beat-by-beat horrors of those terrifying 198 minutes in the August issue of GQ, and he joins us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Good to have you with us today.
SEAN FLYNN: Oh, thanks, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And you tell the story through the eyes of several witnesses. The first person we meet is a young man named Adrian.
FLYNN: Yeah. Adrian was, you know, oddly enough, he was brand new to a leadership position in the AUF, the youth wing of the Labor Party. He had just been hired 11 days earlier as the district secretary from the town of Skien. And when this first started happening, he didn't recognize this as gunfire. He didn't really know to be afraid. He was curios because people don't shoot each other in Norway. And he was convinced that because of the bombing, this must be some sort of prank, that it was, you know, maybe an exercise that the Labor Party was putting on to try to show these kids what it would be like to live in a warzone.
He eventually was smart enough to be afraid and he fled and he tried to swim away from the island but almost drowned, so he swam back. And he was knee-deep in the lake when Breivik appeared on the shore, shooting at some other kids. And then he pointed his long gun at Adrian's chest, and for some reason, he didn't shoot him then. He just abruptly turned and walked away. But later, Adrian ended up being the last person shot. He was on a beach called South Point. There were 10 kids there. Adrian was one of the 10. And he was too exhausted to run so he played dead.
And there was a rain jacket covering part of his face and the back of his head. And Breivik shot him at point-blank range, meaning to shoot him in the head, but he missed because he couldn't really see the shape of Adrian's head. And the bullet just grazed the back of his neck and went into his shoulder. So his shoulder is pretty badly damaged but Adrian survived. But of the 10 kids who were there at South Point, five were killed, and the other five were all wounded.
CONAN: It is - I did not understand that part of Breivik's motive that day was to murder Gro Harlem Brundtland, the, of course, revered former leader of Norway.
FLYNN: Yes, the mother of Norway. Yeah, that was - she was scheduled to be at this camp basically from breakfast through dinner. And there was a photographer, a newspaper photographer named Sara Johannessen who had been sent to document this, to hang out with Gro for the day. Breivik had planned to kidnap her. Expecting her to be there all day, he had planned to kidnap her and videotape himself beheading her. Now - he says this now. Whether or not that's true, it's - who can really say. But Gro was supposed to be there.
The only reason she wasn't is it was a terribly, terribly rainy day. The island was muddy and sloppy, and she decided to leave early. And Sara, who had been shooting some landscapes - I mean, it's beautiful, beautiful country there - Sara almost missed it. She didn't know that Gro was leaving. And she had to sprint down the hill to catch the ferry, which turned out to be the last ferry off the island that day. And then Sara got back. When she left Utoya, she drove back to Oslo and was parking her car when the bomb went off a block away.
CONAN: And she immediately went to work from a light feature on the former prime minister to documenting one of the worst incidents in Norwegian history.
FLYNN: Exactly. I mean, she just sprinted right towards - she sprinted towards the blast and just - yeah.
CONAN: It is interesting, almost all of the people you speak with speak of their incredulity, their disbelief, their - it can't be what I - it sounds like. It's not gunfire. It's not a bomb, but she understood viscerally when she felt the concussion of the bomb that this was something else.
FLYNN: Right. Yeah. I mean, she - that's exactly how she put it. She could feel it in her gut. She, you know, physically feel it. It was, you know, it was a one-time bomb packed into a little VW van that blew a big, big hole in downtown Oslo. It's still, you know, a year later, many, many blocks are surrounded by high wooden barriers and they're still rebuilding.
CONAN: And we forget about that initial bombing clearly meant, certainly, an attack on the government but also as a distraction.
FLYNN: You know, it's - yes and no. It's - Breivik has given several different accounts of that. He has said that if the body count had been higher, he wouldn't have gone to Utoya. You know, again, who knows if that's true. But it did - yeah, it created some problems. He was able to slip out of Oslo and out to Utoya because the police evacuated the city, which certainly seems - seemed at the time and I think even in hindsight seems like the rational response when something blows up downtown. You know, you don't know if it's a single bomb or if, you know, if it's part of a coordinated attack. So you want to get people away and, you know, be slipped away in the crowd.
CONAN: And there is the terrible story of sisters who are on Utoya who become convinced their father has been blown up in Oslo.
FLYNN: Yeah. Freddy Lie, who's a really strong man, a really wonderful man, he drives a dump truck in Oslo, but he lives in the town of Jondal, which is a border town in the far south. And when the bomb went off, his girls didn't know if he was in Oslo or not, so they called him. But he didn't have his phone with him, which is unusual. He'd left it in his car, and Freddie always answers his phone, but he'd missed this call so his daughters, you know, assumed the worst. When he finally got to talk them and assured them that he was safe, that was - they talked - he talked to his 16-year-old daughter Elisabeth for a little more than 15 minutes. And that was about 10 minutes before Breivik showed up on the island.
Elisabeth called back at 5:25 and she just screamed. She didn't say anything. She just screamed into the phone. She was crouched down by a wall in the cafeteria, and she screamed for two minutes and seven seconds. And then Breivik shot her in the head. And he shot on the left side of the head, and the bullet came out the right side of her head and destroyed her phone. And so on Freddie's end, the phone just went dead. And he found out all of that later by piecing together photos from the scene.
CONAN: There is also the case you cite of her sister, who says, Elisabeth was the pretty one, the smart one. Why her? Why not me?
FLYNN: Yeah. I mean, it's heartbreaking. And when Freddy tells that story, it's - you can see the heartbreak in - on his face. It's - as Freddy says, what do you say to that? You're just speechless. I mean, what do you tell one daughter who thinks she should have died instead of her sister? And Cathrine is Elisabeth's older sister. She was badly wounded. She was shot in the back. It went through her shoulder blade and her lung and took out two ribs and came out her abdomen. And she found a place to hide, and she held a rock against her stomach for two hours to try to stop the bleeding before she was finally rescued from the island.
CONAN: There is - in reconstructing an event like this, inevitably your source is those who survived. Do you worry that you give a false sense because the people - obviously, we're hearing about people who died, of course, but a large number of survivors in your story - by definition, they're the only people you can talk to.
FLYNN: Correct. And I hope through those people that - the reason we did the story is - I mean, everyone knows that killing 77 people is a horrifying, horrible thing. But 77 is a statistic, and statistics often aren't as horrifying as story should be. So we really wanted to try to explain and to show exactly how horrifying this was and to use - to see it through the eyes of someone like Freddy, you know, through Adrian who was wounded, through Munir Jaber who wasn't wounded, through some of the witnesses, you know, Sara Johannessen and some of the rescuers; Hege Dalen and her fiance. They helped rescue dozen and dozens of kids. And the damage that did to them, it almost ended their engagement. There's really quite a toll taken on - well, really on the whole country to varying degrees.
CONAN: We have seen since then the trial of Anders Breivik. There has been no conclusion as of yet. You write the only thing he is afraid of is that he will be found insane.
FLYNN: Yes. They ended up in a very odd position. The first psychiatrist who examined him last fall concluded that he was, in fact, psychotic. So the indictment against him was filed as if he was crazy, and you ended up in a position with the government prosecutors arguing that this man was criminally insane and the defense arguing that, no, I'm completely sane. And the victims' families and the survivors also arguing that, no, he is completely sane. And I think that gets into - I mean, I actually don't know. I've never spoken to the man. I'm not a psychiatrist. But he was very methodical in what he did.
He's been very explicit in his motives, and he wrote all of this down. He posted in on the Internet. He spent years doing this. What gets really sort of insane is the belief system behind his motives. He is a guy who seems to - not seems to, he does - believe that liberals are somehow in league with fundamentalist Jihadists and that they're together, posing an existential threat to Western civilization.
CONAN: There is also - and your story makes clear - we associate - if you came across any one of these victims shot several times, most of them, you would say this was done as a item of personal rage. That would be the immediate conclusion any investigator would reach. Seventy-seven or, - well, those - includes the people blown up in Oslo, but so many people killed on that island with multiple gunshot wounds, a sign of rage.
FLYNN: Yeah, yeah. And certainly, the descriptions that we heard from people who watched him carry this out was, yeah, a guy who, you know, Adrian described him. He said his face turned bright red and it's almost as if he said - almost as if his head was going to explode. And there are reports of, you know, almost a war cry when he was running around shooting people. Yeah, he's - well, you know, Neal, we also - we try not write too much about Breivik.
FLYNN: We want to write about what he did. But it's - frankly, it's not - it's rather easy to dismiss his belief system because it's just patently absurd. It's illogical. It's nonsensical. And when you get around to killing 77 people, it's, you know, there were some internal debate how much time we really wanted to spend on figuring him out.
CONAN: Sean Flynn, a correspondent for GQ. His piece about the Norwegian massacre, "Is he coming? Is he? Oh God, I think he is," in the August issue of the magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. There is also the question of the police response. One of the people driving a boat near that island that day saw the elite police arrive at the ferry terminal and pulled his boat back for them to get on. It is a tragedy that then ensued.
FLYNN: Yeah. And the police have actually been very open about this, and they've done a number of internal investigations. And they believe if everything had gone absolutely properly and correctly, they could've been there 16 minutes earlier. Part of the problem here, though, because they have taken something some - a fair amount of criticism I thought was unfair, They didn't have a plan for this because why would you? I mean, who sits around and dreams up a plan in a country with a miniscule violent crime rate to expect that someone's going to blow up Central Oslo and then drive out to a youth summer camp on an island and start gunning people down?
I mean, that's not going to rank high in the probability scale. There was a fair amount of distance to cover, and they had a problem with the boat. You know, I spent some time with a police officer named Hakon Hval, who was one of the first to respond. He had worked in that district, the North Buskerud District for, I believe, eight years at that point, and he'd never been to Utoya. There had never been a reason to go to Utoya. But he was driving one of the boats, and he turned to pick up some Delta commandos. And when they all got in the boat, the bow of the boat pushed out on some rocks and was grounded. So to get the bow up, they shuffled to the back and the stern just...
CONAN: Flooded the engine, yes.
CONAN: And then it...
FLYNN: Very briefly.
CONAN: ...couldn't start.
FLYNN: The boat wouldn't go.
CONAN: Yeah. There will be more about that as that investigation continues as well. Sean Flynn, thank you very much for your time today.
FLYNN: Oh, Neal, thank you.
CONAN: Again, the piece, "Is he coming? Is he? Oh God, I think he is," the August issue of GQ magazine. Sean Flynn, with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.