Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

What is a Terrorist? Asne Seierstad and Masha Gesson Discuss the Norway Massacre and Boston Bombing with Jonny Steinberg

Masha Gessen, Åsne Seierstad and Jonny Steinberg

One of UsThe Tsarnaev BrothersA Man of Good HopeJonny Steinberg spoke to Åsne Seierstad and Masha Gessen about their books, One of Us and The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy, at the 2015 Open Book Festival yesterday.

Seierstad’s book, One of Us, tells the story of the Norwegian massacre that took place on 22 July, 2011. On that day, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utøya. In The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy Gessen writes about Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who planted bombs at the Boston Marathon on 15 April, 2013.

There’s no less reliable source of information about the self than the self.

- Masha Gessen

Steinberg started the conversation by asking the two writers how they choose their material and why they select certain facts in the telling of the story, to which Gessen replied: “You just asked the question of all journalism.”

The journalist, activist and writer continued: “There’s no less reliable source of information about the self than the self.” She said that reconstructing a picture of the events that unfolded is a fascinating process and that her book is as much a story of the Boston bombers as it is about dislocation. After World War II, the brothers’ family was forcibly removed from Chechnya to the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and eventually received asylum in the United States.

Anders Behring Breivik’s lies are essential.

- Åsne Seierstad

Seierstad agreed that Steinberg’s question is one of the fundamental questions in journalism. She said that in portraying Breivik, who called the massacre on the island his “book launch”, she had to choose the facts that were essential: “In this case his lies are essential.” Breivik constructed an image of himself as a person who had a happy childhood and a healthy lovelife but Seierstad discovered through extensive research and access to his childhood psychological evaluation that this was not the case. “He built beautiful bridges over areas of conflict,” she said, but in his lies she found “important information about his psyche”.

There’s a lot of mythology on who terrorists are.

- Masha Gessen

Gessen had a lot of eyewitness material to work with. In her book she explores what it means to be a terrorist and what motivates domestic acts of terrorism. “The way we’ve been talking in the US about terrorism and the war on terror, there’s a lot of mythology on who terrorists are.” This myth around terrorism stems from war rhetoric, Gessen explained, in which the enemy is seen both less than human (a monster) and more than human (with super powers). “My goal is the book was to portray them as human.”

I was so paralysed in the writing process.

- Åsne Seierstad

Steinberg asked the authors about their writing methods and observed that Seierstad drew on the fictional elements and the thriller genre to tell the story. “I was so paralysed in the writing process,” she said. The news of what Breivik had permeated Norwegian society, everyone was suddenly a psychologist, speculating about his motives and sanity. “These discussions were everywhere.”

Seierstad remembered writing advice she’d heard before: “If you really don’t know what to do always trust in chronology.” Where does the story start? In 1979 when Breivik was born. She insisted however that One of Us is not a biography. “For me it was important to show the victims – they were political targets.” So she also started at the birth of the young men and women who died on the island and constructed their stories based on testimonies from their friends and families.

Gessen said she also went into a story that was over reported. She encountered two problems in reporting on the Boston bombers. First, the people she wanted to speak to were ordinary citizens thrust in the media spotlight by a tragedy. They often felt abused by the media and hesitated to speak to Gessen because of that. The second problem was that a lot of people were harassed by the FBI. The entire Boston area was under overt surveillance, which hampered the flow of information.

Part of Gessen’s reporting had to take place on the farm near Chechnya and she also travelled to Pakistan and Kurdistan to get a clearer picture of the brothers. One thing that struck her as interesting was how the students at the University of Massachusetts responded when they saw the picture of their classmate and pot smoking buddy on television. Their immediate reaction was to knock on the one brother’s door and to ask him if he’s a terrorist. The room was empty and then they received a message that he wasn’t coming back and they could take whatever they wanted. They claimed his weed, computer and explosives, but when another person said they were probably going to get in trouble, they threw everything out and thereby inadvertently tampered with material evidence. Gessen said that these students are still in trouble with the federal law.

“When it came to Breivik’s life, the difference was that people didn’t want to talk about him,” Seierstad said. She relied on police transcripts and interviews with Breivik, his mother and the people who knew both the perpetrator and the victims. She found that Breivik was constantly looking for acceptance and admiration but was always rejected when he tried too hard to fit in.

How did Breivik succeed in killing 77 people? He was alone, white, he could rent a farm and buy everything he needed for the bomb legally, and he isn’t Muslim. Seierstad also said that Norway acted as a failed state that day, it being ridiculously unprepared to deal with the situation and to take appropriate action on time.

Gessen’s story of the Boston Marathon is also one that could have been prevented. She spent two decades writing about Russian law enforcement and found that America’s security services are not that different from Russian security forces. In 2011 the Russian security forces told the America government that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam and that he had connections with terrorist groups. Gessen mused: How was someone who was pinpointed as a terrorist able to commit such a large act of terror in a public space?


* * * * * * * *

Read a few tweets from the event:



Book details

Photographs from day 3 of Open Book: 11 September 2015

Photos from the third day of the 2015 Open Book Festival, happening in Cape Town from 9 – 13 SeptemberBooks LIVE…

Posted by Books LIVE on Saturday, 12 September 2015


Please register or log in to comment