Henning Mankell: 'No One Is Born Evil'

In a SPIEGEL interview, bestselling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell talks about his reaction to the Ut°ya massacre, the absurdity of Anders Breivik's ideas and the need to engage in dialogue with the right wing.

A vigil in memory of the victims of the July 22 attacks in Oslo (July 25 photo). Zoom
AFP

A vigil in memory of the victims of the July 22 attacks in Oslo (July 25 photo).

Norway appeared to be just about as close to paradise as one could get: a home to unspoiled nature and a prosperous and egalitarian society. Three Scandinavian novelists describe the pain inflicted by the tragic attacks in Norway and their fears of the loss of the country's idyll.


SPIEGEL: Anders Breivik has confessed to the Oslo bombing and Ut°ya massacre, which killed a total of 77 people. Is this a story and a character that you, as a world-famous author of crime thrillers, could have invented?

Mankell: Whatever I write, reality is always worse. That's the response I like to give when I'm asked about how much reality there is to my stories. If I had used the morbid part of my brain to invent something like this, a man making his way through a summer camp and calmly shooting one young person after another, my readers would have thought it was completely unbelievable, even ridiculous. A story's plausibility cannot keep up with the crude brutality that happens in real life.

SPIEGEL: Can Breivik simply be dismissed as being deranged?

Mankell: We can certainly tell ourselves that his personality exhibits psychotic characteristics, that he has a massive narcissistic disorder and that he is full of hatred. But what does this mean? Perhaps he is a psychopath, but that doesn't explain anything. In the last few days, I've been thinking about (German-born political theorist) Hannah Arendt and her report on the (Adolf) Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. How can seemingly normal human beings, people who otherwise are loving fathers, sons and brothers, be capable of such atrocities? It takes time and distance to find an answer. But I'm afraid that some things will ultimately remain inexplicable.

SPIEGEL: Does our consternation over the mystery of evil also stem from the fact that Breivik, as the police put it, literally came out of nowhere?

Mankell: We want to recognize the characteristics of evil early on, and we search for marks of Cain and stigmata, the warning signs of the horrific before it occurs. But that kind of thinking is based on magic.

SPIEGEL: But it isn't just a question of the banality of evil, but also of our fascination with evil.

Mankell: You address an important aspect. What I fear most of all is that a new discussion will emerge about the concept of innate evil. That was the way people thought 500 years ago. No one is born evil. People become evil through external circumstances, which provoke evil behavior.

SPIEGEL: But everyone has the inherent capability to be evil?

Mankell: In the Balkan wars, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, neighbors who had lived together in peace until then suddenly began attacking one another. I saw child soldiers in Africa, 14 and 15-year-old boys, who slaughtered their parents after someone had held a gun to their heads. I'm not sure what I would have done, as a child, in their situation. The explanation for evil lies in its circumstances and conditions, not in its diabolical nature. That is what Hannah Arendt taught us.

SPIEGEL: Breivik apparently saw himself as a political assassin.

Mankell: Yes, he sees himself as a soldier, a warrior against the alleged dictatorship of cultural Marxism and the expansion of Islam. He apparently believes that in 60 or 70 years' time, he will be retrospectively recognized as a heroic figure.

SPIEGEL: That would explain why he has confessed to the crime without acknowledging his guilt.

Mankell: But even if one could say that he was applying the logic of the soldier or knight, he would have committed despicable war crimes and violated all of the Geneva Conventions, if I may follow the absurdity (of his thinking) to its logical conclusion. This is precisely what makes it possible to try him for crimes against humanity in his self-proclaimed civil war. Then he will disappear behind bars forever, namely for 30 years plus preventive detention.

SPIEGEL: What symbolic power did he hope to unleash with his actions? In a passage in his Internet manifesto, he claims that what was once considered treason is seen as tolerance today.

Mankell: For days, I have been thinking about the question of which ideal society Breivik imagines as the alternative.

SPIEGEL: The ideal world of our forefathers?

Mankell: To be sure, his murderous act is an expression of a rebellion against the complexity of globalized society. But what can he offer instead? Isolation, surveillance, enforced political conformity and zero tolerance. A system like that would not be viable, because it could not engage in any interaction. The totalitarianism of a sect would rule within that system. Horrible. It's precisely for that reason that the beacon he finds so promising will go out without having had any effect. It offers no promise.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, his crime will have political consequences. Is Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg right when he promises more democracy, openness and tolerance as a reaction to this crime?

Mankell: The consequence of this tragedy can only be a stronger social dialogue. The democrats' willingness to talk cannot diminish, neither toward the Muslims nor the right-wing populists or nationalists. I hear that there are those in Germany who periodically call for a ban of the (far-right party) NPD. That's the wrong approach. The party can reappear under a new name and in a different form, or it can continue to exist in the underground. It would be just as wrong now, after Breivik's mass murder, to end the discussion with Scandinavia's right-wing parties, just because the killer shares a disconcertingly large volume of ideas, opinions and positions with them. There is movement in debate, while exclusion merely produces inertia. Talking, talking and listening -- discourse as the means of finding a solution. That is what we have inherited from the Enlightenment.

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1. No One is Born Evil
iqrassooli 08/06/2011
I am so pleased that this expression that I used in November 2000 as part of the prologue to my thesis - web inthenameofallah dot org- on Muhammad, his Quran & Islam has been repeated by Mr Mankell. The Norwegian Breivik was actually 'forced' to use such horrible and extreme violence because in most of Europe, revealing the facts about Islam would end one in a court of law as a racist. The media, politicians and judiciary have actually closed the doors for any debate on Islam. Remember the absurdity of taking Geert Wilders of the Netherlands to court for comparing Quran & Mein Kampf and then loosing the case for the obvious fact that in a free society, he had every right to do so, Breivik's message was political and directed at the very elite leaders of his country whom he knows are betraying his people by allowing the Islamization of Norway. Interestingly, not a single court of law would put any Imam on trial for incitement against all human beings who do not believe in Muhammad & Allah. I am afraid that this type of action will be repeated somewhere else in Europe for as long as the so called liberals want it only their way. IQ al Rassooli
2. No one is born evil
hollywoodkid 08/08/2011
Nice. Let's throw the nature/nurture paradigm right out the window! No intermediate nor indeterminate ontogenesis, simply the straight forward thesis that our world molds us into what we become or are. No. There are truly evil persons born everyday, all over the world. We can assign to them labels such as psychotic, antisocial, sociopathic, manic-depressive, paranoid, schizoid, or any hue of the autistic rainbow. In the final analysis, everyone is born with certain indelible traits, physically, mentally, emotionally, which can be modified through external stimulation, adaptation, assimilation, etc. These in turn can be influenced to a degree by environment, education, sense of self, sense of place and time, family, and sense of being loved. No matter. People such as Ted Bundy and Anders Breivik are of the same evil spawn, individuals who, no matter the positive external stimulation and experience, will eventually turn to their darker side. They are hardwired, and if one calls that evil, then so be it.
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About Henning Mankell
  • Henning Mankell, 63, is a bestselling Swedish crime writer. His most famous creation is Inspector Kurt Wallander. "The Troubled Man," which will probably be the final Wallander novel, was published in English in 2011.

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