The murderous rampage carried out by Anders Breivik is one of those events that leaves us all shocked and puzzled. We want to know why, and we want some way of believing that it won’t happen again. To avoid being governed by such emotions requires courage. I think the Norwegian response to the terror was courageous in two ways, the first obvious and the second not so obvious.
First, it appears that the Norwegian people for the most part sought justice, not revenge. It would be unnatural, of course, not to feel some sense of satisfaction at what will probably amount to a whole-life sentence. For those who grieve, this is probably part of the ‘moving on’ process, though I doubt that some will ever know complete closure.
It takes courage for a society to follow the path of due legal process, including the observance of the rights of the defendant, in the face of universal revulsion. That must be particularly true when the facts of the case are agreed by all. The process had to be followed, not to establish guilt, but as a matter of principle.
Second, it takes courage to declare someone like Breivik sane rather than insane. The point here is less obvious and therefore needs opening out – after all, the result for Breivik, and for the protection of Norwegian society in the future, is not really affected very much by this distinction. It hardly seems important, let alone a matter requiring courage.
It is important because, to begin with, Breivik’s actions resulted from his extreme beliefs – yet there are millions of people who have such beliefs but do not embark on killing sprees. It seems reasonable to think that he suffers from personality disorders, as claimed by the second psychiatric team who assessed him, but again there are millions of others in that category who do not take to violence. Even if the first group of psychiatrists had been correct in their diagnosis of schizophrenia, the same argument would apply. 24 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia, but without embarking on a course of destruction.
Breivik, by all accounts, had an unsettled childhood and rebellious adolescence, later becoming somewhat of a loner. Once more, there are many millions of whom the same things could be said. Yet few of them become criminals, let alone mass murderers.
We cannot, then, point to a certain group of people and show that they consistently become bent on the destruction of others. If we could do that, then cause and effect theories would hold more water, but in reality the result of such theories is simply to stigmatise the group involved. Life is hard enough, for example, for people suffering from mental illnesses, without the added suspicion that they might turn to violence at any moment. Since the word ‘insane’ does not specify any particular mental illness, it can easily be used as a catch-all. The Norwegian decision was important, then, to avoid attaching stigma to many groups of people.
The decision was courageous because it is easier to disown evil with a word like ‘insane’ rather than acknowledge that the potential for evil is a feature of humanity. The notable Scandinavian liberal tradition reminds us that these justices were not baying for blood; there is probably no part of the world that has a greater consciousness of impartial justice and humanitarianism. Further, the despicable nature of the crime is so far beyond our understanding that the word ‘mad’ is almost automatically attached to it. Yet the judges still recognised the central tenet of human responsibility.
As David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birimingham City University, put it in an ITV interview, “Labelling Breivik insane allows us a sense of distance which is a luxury we should deny ourselves. “
The Oslo District Court denied themselves that luxury on behalf of us all.