Hell is not a virtual world.
Anders Behring Breivik proved it on July 22, 2011 when he slaughtered 77 people in Norway. On that summer day last year, Breivik pulled onscreen hellishness into the world of space, matter, and time. Last Thursday, in testimony at his trial, Breivik told of how he brought shocking virtual gore into horrible reality.
Tragically, Breivik may be a poster child for scores of others who increasingly have difficulty distinguishing the virtual world exploding on their computer screens from the actual.
On April 12, he told a Norwegian court that he spent "lots of time" playing warfare games that he found useful "if you want to simulate for training purposes." In fact, on New Year's 2010 he revealed that he played a game called Modern Warfare for 17 hours.
Long enough to cross the threshold into 2011, the year Breivik would bring simulation into actualization.
Psychiatrists will try to get to the core of Breivik's brain and dark psyche. They will likely find that it swims in the ethos of magic, mysticism, and mayhem that is the ocean of contemporary culture for millions of children, adolescents, young adults – and even older ones.
They fancy themselves as vampires, and cloak their bodies in Harry Potter-like wizard's robes. They think they can fly, manipulate the ether, and live in death-gray castles whose stones are made of bytes. They create virtual selves, avatars, and alternate realities that are mere electronic impulses in the innards of a computer, and then try to build whole lives upon the landscape of illusion.
Breivik's confessions suggest he had entered deeply into that murky realm. Norse myth provided the mystical aura. He spun the stories of Nordic tradition like Hitler once lavished in mystical jaunts listening to Wagner and perhaps pondering Nietzsche.
"The rifle I call Gungnir, which is the name of the magical spear of Odin," Breivik told the court. And the Glock (a pistol) I called Mjoelnir, the warrior god, Thor's Hammer." The names were inscribed on the weapons with runes, the ancient Germanic alphabet that is a favorite of today's virtually-magically minded.
"He does not seem to be very successful at distinguishing between the virtual reality of World of Warcraft (a computer game) and shooting people in real life," said a University of Oslo professor, Thomas Hylland Eriksen.
In 2006, Breivik decided to give it his all. He moved to his mother's house to shave expenses, and almost never left the Warcraft game. "Of course I couldn't tell her I was going to take a sabbatical because I am going to blow myself up in five years' time," he said. Brievik reported that he would spend as much as 16 hours a day simulating war and killing.
What happens to the brain – and soul – through such a lifestyle? Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, ponders that question. "With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use."
Never have the words of Jesus rung truer than in our time where virtual and actual have become indistinguishable to so many: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."