Read just a little of the proceedings of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik — the Norwegian who killed eight in a car bomb in Oslo last July before shooting 69 people, mostly teenagers, at a left-wing political youth retreat on the island of Utoya — and you may well wonder why on earth are his heavily rationalized right-wing, Islamophobic, extremist, ramblings being given a platform for the ten weeks of his trial, with the families of many of the victims right in the courtroom.
Today is the fourth day of Breivik’s trial. Among the things he has said so far: He prefers execution over a jail term (which would be limited to 21 years under Norwegian law). He “trained” for the attacks using the computer game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. His original plans included beheading Norway’s former Labor prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, while filming the execution on his iPhone. He actually intended to set off three car bombs in Oslo and then drive around the city on a motorbike shooting people until he was killed; he was “forced” (as he says) to shoot his victims because Norwegian and EU regulations made it difficult for him to obtain enough materials for making bombs. He cried when the propaganda film he made was shown to the court on Monday, the first day of the trial.
It turns out that Breivik has an American penpal, 23-year-old Kevin Forts of Massachusetts, who has told the Norwegian network VGTV that he wanted to donate to Breivik’s legal team and decided not to after learning that the funds are being donated to families of the victims.
Should Brevik receive a maximum sentence of 21 years, he will spend it in a cell that sounds a bit more like an above-average (at least) college dorm room, with “mint-green walls and IKEA-style furniture in varnished natural wood” and “a flat-screen TV, a private bath, and a large unbarred window.”
Could Brevik’s Public Statements Actually Be “Damaging” to Right-Wing Extremists?
I live in northern New Jersey where nearly every community, however large or small, has a memorial to 9/11 victims. To many here, everything about Breivik’s trial is unfathomable. Many would argue that allowing a mass murderer to go on and on about his unspeakable, morally repugnant acts of violence and hate is giving in to Breivik, setting him in the public spotlight in just the way he was hoping for.
Writing in The Atlantic, Max Fisher argues that the U.S. could learn a thing or two from Norway’s trial of Breivik. Fisher compares the U.S.’s decision to try Khelid Sheikh Mohammed, the “September 11 mastermind,” not in a courtroom in New York city but in a military trial at the Guantanamo Bay military detention facility. Is it possible, asks Fisher, that trying KSM in New York “might have actually damaged KSM’s ideological message, rather than furthering it”?:
…rather than sparking a far-right-extremist renaissance, or inspiring a new generation of Breivik acolytes across northern Europe, his public rantings appear to be having the opposite effect. European white nationalist movements, of which Breivik represents an extreme fringe, have been on the rise of years,gaining political power and, whether deliberately or not, inspiring violence. But the popular backlash against Breivik has put them on the defensive. Far-right such as the English Defence League, with which Breivik had some indirect contact, are suffering as Breivik reveals their disturbing ideological overlaps. When far-right parties held a mass rally in Denmark earlier this month, opposing protesters actually outnumbered them.
An editorial in the Guardian says that, while the trial is too-clearly revealing Breivik’s “wickedly calculated” courtroom strategy,
.. Norway has refused to rise to Breivik’s provocation. There is nothing that fanatics who see themselves as warriors want more than to provoke an over-reaction. That was the mistake that the United States made after 9/11. Even though Breivik’s acts are abnormal and abhorrent, Norway has rightly put him on trial in the normal way, has emphasised that he has rights, and has allowed him to have his say in court, however painful that may be. This is absolutely the correct way to assert the strength of democracy and the rule of law in the face of acts of terror of all kinds.
Norway’s response to Breivik’s atrocities is to see these as a “challenge to the rule of law” that “must be met with an assertion of the rule of law,” rather than by declaring something like “war.”
Crime and Capital Punishment
Fisher also points out that the death penalty is banned in Norway, as it is in most of the developed world (excluding the U.S.). The American justice system focuses on “retribution, which is popular but not effective,” with more than half of U.S. convicts ending up back in jail within two years. Capital punishment is popular in U.S. opinion polls but, says Fisher, “expensive and ineffective at deterring crime.”
With all this said, idealizing the Norwegian justice system and society certainly carries its own hazards. Two days after the massacre, Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg said at a memorial service for the victims that “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.” John Olav Egeland, a columnist and former editor of the newspaper Dagbladet, says in the Guardian that “There have been, as far as I can see, no political suggestions on how to expand ‘democracy, openness, and humanity’,” but rather “‘more security and more safety’” in the form of barricades around some government buildings and 200 additional police officers — a crackdown, though minimal in relation to how other governments might response.
Should a mass murderer like Breivik be given the legal treatment and platform that Norway has allotted him? Could allowing a right-wing extremist to speak so freely really be an antidote to the spread of xenophobia, Islamophobia and hate?
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