Tragedy and Freedom

By Nick • Lifestyle • 23 Jul 2011

Disaster in a peaceful place.

[Note - the below was written immediately after this event. If I wrote it now I'd be less polarized and a lot less certain. Basically it seems impossible to stop crazy people from obtaining guns. And it's impossible to stop people from becoming crazy. So, what to do? I definitely don't support the 'arm everyone' philosophy that occasionally surfaces (usually when such issues are raised in the company of gun nuts)]

Part 1 – Tragedy in a Peaceful and Free Nation

Yesterday in Norway a psychopath murdered more than 90 people. Maybe he had ‘help’ planning… but either way he personally pulled the trigger of the guns that killed at least 84.

Early speculation had muslim extremist terror as the probable culprit (which is sad in itself, but understandable)… but it fairly quickly emerged that it was a Norwegian native responsible – and appears to be linked to far-right hate groups (who typically despise muslims, as well as most other people). Five days beforehand his killing spree, he dispensed this little gem of wisdom on twitter.

The only thing this guy has in common with John Mill… the original figure of 99 apparently wasn’t big enough for his twisted ego.

It goes without saying that, in hindsight, I think the world would be a better place if this guy had been run over by a truck when he was 5… but fate isn’t always kind, and when it is we never know and interpret its kindness as tragedy anyway.

Upon hearing about things like this I can’t help but wonder if we, as humans, are ever going to get the world ‘right’. Clearly this sort of stuff shouldn’t happen. Yet it does, and in Norway which is:

  1. Extremely rich – GDP/Capita US$84k/annum
  2. Extremely equal distribution of wealth – Gini 25.8
  3. Extremely supportive of all backgrounds (Subsidised higher education, universal healthcare, very comprehensive social welfare)
  4. Extremely free (topped global index for freedom of press)
  5. Extremely highly developed (top HDI worldwide).


Norway has done all the things that you’re supposed to do to have a free, wealthy, healthy, equitable country… and yet they are still exposed to psychopaths killing nearly 100 children on a summer camp. And, I reemphasise, this psycho was home-grown.

So. A conundrum. Can we fix this problem, or is it just something that will always happen? What might improve the situation? What might the cost be?

I think freedom is a key issue. The first instinct of many might be “This guy, and all his friends, should have been locked up (or shot) a long time ago”. I could sympathise. But it’s a slippery slope (and indeed, locking up people for their beliefs rather than actions is probably already too far down the slope), and such an approach could fairly quickly see Norway losing the freedom it currently has.

So what would have been an ok time to lock this guy up forever (or until proven innocent)?

  1. The moment he started shooting? Yes
  2. The moment he called all the children to gather around? Yes
  3. When he was on the boat out to the island, impersonating a policeman? Yes
  4. When he put the bomb in the building in Oslo? Yes
  5. When he was at home, preparing the bomb? I’d say yes
  6. When he was at home, thinking about preparing the bomb? Tricky
  7. When he was at home, thinking about how society was wrong and what it needed was some good old crusaders for white power? Umm…


I honestly don’t know. Ideas?

What I strongly suspect though is that following the path that the US Patriot act started back down is not a good idea. The freedom to think a certain way and even act a certain way (get a Swastika tattoo, meet up with your friends and listen to death metal) is part of what makes a free society. The moment you restrict that by saying people are free to think wholesome upstanding thoughts, but not free to think negative ones, you run into trouble. And societies that are not free tend to be a lot more violent than societies that are. Freedom of expression, democracy etc tend to create healthy societies with lower crime, better preservation of rights, fairer distribution of wealth, higher standard of living. If the occasional psychopath is the price of not being North Korea then it seems a fair price to pay. But is that really all that we can do?

Part 2 – Guns, Assymetry in Power, and Freedom to Harm

Lets quickly look at how this guy was able to kill 90+ people:

  1. He was free to have opinions that presumably included the superiority of anarchy/white supremacy as a societal standard.
  2. He was free to discuss this philosophy without being immediately imprisoned (I have to assume that getting together and discussing hatred with like-minded people tends to increase your conviction)
  3. He was able to access explosives
  4. He was able to access a shotgun, a pistol, and an assault rifle


Hmm. Well, to start I think a healthy society helps reduce the incidence of points 1 & 2. People shouldn’t hate, and most hate is born of ignorance. But I think it’s pretty hard to erase all traces of it, and if there was a place that could do it by the conventional methods of wealth, health, and equality then you’d think Norway would be it. We have to try and help kids develop with healthy brains and thoughts that are free and explorative of new ideas but don’t have a proclivity for mass murder. The kids at this youth camp were probably mostly good examples of success.

You can ban assembly of hate groups… except that’s pretty hard to do, not a hallmark of freedom, and either way locking someone up forever as penalty is clearly excessive.

Limiting access to explosives isn’t too hard… but limiting access to materials with which you can make powerful explosives is basically impossible without phenomenally intrusive surveillance. The explosives only killed 7, so lets take that as round two anyway, but acknowledge that controls on certain chemicals are a good idea.

Limiting access to weapons though… that’s not that hard. Why don’t we do that?

Cue howls of rage from gun enthusiasts near and far. They are careful with their guns afterall. It is a mark of freedom that they are allowed to own guns. They need their guns for hunting. They have a sport which uses guns. They need their guns for defense from home intruders. I live in Switzerland, which requires as a matter of law that all men perform compulsory military service and then keep their weapons at home with them for the next 20 or so years. The weapons in question are assault rifles designed specifically for killing (/maiming) people. Many swiss I talk to think this is as ridiculous as I do, but there are a surprising number who think it’s important. Afterall, that’s what stopped the Germans! Insanity, but maybe something for another day.

Anyway, this guy was basically able to kill so many people because he had a weapon designed expressly for that purpose… two in fact. WHY???

The target shooters want to shoot targets. Good on them. With the standard of engineering and technology today I am willing to bet a lot of money that it would be possible to engineer a target rifle equivalent that gave an identical experience to todays guns but was dangerous only in proportion to its weight. The hunters want to hunt. Fine-ish… however I can’t begin to imagine what the average rabbit/goat/deer/pig is packing these days that might require you hunt with one of these?

Heckler & Koch – Because you don’t know what that goat might have in its fleece, and it’s worth risking mass murder to never find out.

There is no justification for anyone owning such a weapon. However, I understand they (automatic weapons) are already banned in Norway. Smart country, but again it doesn’t seem to have helped this time. Here, though, better controls might be realistic and might help. The other angle pushes by gun enthusiasts is widespread gun possession. Ah huh. While I often think it would be a good idea if I carried a gun everywhere with me I think I’m probably the only one. And I’m more than happy to relinquish my gun carrying rights in order to ensure everyone else relinquishes theirs. This is where I very much draw the freedom line. No one should be free to prepare for an action which destroys the freedom of others.

Guns directly contributed to this tragedy by the huge asymmetry they create in power. Yes, people will always find a way to kill other people if they’re sufficiently compelled to do so. A knife. A steel bar. A car. But how many would there be dead if this guy had been armed with a knife. One maybe? Two? None? Even if he’d had a single shot rifle suitable for hunting… three? Ironically, that twitter post foreshadows the same sentiment. One person with a belief is equal to 100,000 with only interests perhaps. And one person with a weapon carefully engineered to kill people quickly and easily is ‘equal’ to many without. We should try to avoid situations where that “one person” is a psychopath, and it seems we should be able to do so at a very low cost to freedom.

Finally, it seems no coincidence that this guy liked to play first-person-shooters – ‘Modern Warfare 2′ according to his facebook profile. Now cue the howls of rage from first person shooter computer game enthusiasts about how there’s no conclusive evidence that playing these games turns you into someone who has a burning desire to go through with a plan to murder 90 people they don’t know.

Maybe. But I think it’s beyond debate that if you are already a person with inclinations in that direction then playing a photo-realistic immersive game in which you roam around shooting people will certainly help to condition your response in a real world scenario and further suppress any instinctive respect for life. I used to play these games sometimes (though I much preferred the ones where you fight aliens – I actually really didn’t like shooting even computer generated people) and I know the thrill. Basically though, I think they’re messed up and it would be nice if there was a better offering of equally thrilling but not conditioning-to-kill games.

I can easily imagine this guy roaming the island stuck in a fantasy of being a warrior, doing noble work, just like his protagonist in Modern Warfare 2. He was not and is not a warrior, he was a coward murdering children in a battle of no contest. He had no restraint, required little skill, and had awful judgement. These are not the traits of warriors as the term applies to those who deserve respect in association with it.

The SWAT team who captured him were warriors – they were professional, they required a lot of skill, they fought for a just cause… and they exercised restraint by capturing him alive. Leave them their weapons, they actually need them. Take such things away from everyone else (*On reflection, and as more detail surfaced, this also is plainly a stupid and simplistic solution. The gun was obtained illegally, and Norwegian gun clubs actually appear extremely safe and responsible. As I say in the comments below – there is no simple solution. It’s becoming easier and easier for people to kill other people if they don’t fear the consequences… and it’s extremely hard to screen for it. A risk of the world that we have to live with I guess).

For all the people involved in this disaster, my deepest sympathies. I hope we can move towards a world where it happens less often, and where more countries have the freedom and quality of life of Norway.

2 Responses

  1. Andrew

    I guess even when you do everything right there’s still a chance someone will do something like this (albeit a smaller chance), just a tragedy that someone so unhinged was also so meticulous and calculating.

    • Nick

      Yup. I like my murderous psychopaths how I like my cheese. Stupid, ineffective when it comes to murder, and dead.

      Looking over the actuarial tables for Norway ( I have to say it’s hard to justify pointing a damning finger at their gun clubs.

      How do you stop even a calculating, intelligent murderous psychopath from illegally obtaining a dangerous weapon? Almost impossible.

      So then you’d maybe try to detect people with murderous intent by genetic or behavioural profiling… but that runs into muddy ethical ground and also doesn’t really help in cases like the ones I read about the other day where otherwise normal healthy kind people abruptly change their personality and kill several people. Why? Because of some tiny tumour in their brains (in this case) that screwed up this guys hormones and squished some little gland that is largely responsible for regulating emotion. Scary.