The Norwegian gunman who killed 77 people in July last year has today been declared sane and sentenced to a minimum of 21 years in jail, following a long and controversial court case. Anders Breivik, who claimed to be acting against the ‘Islamisation’ of Norway and the growing ‘threat of multiculturalism’, repeatedly refused to recognise the authority of the court, and insisted that his sanity could not be questioned. After the verdict was read out, Norway’s most notorious criminal spoke only to express the wish that he had killed more ‘legitimate targets’. As the world has followed with interest the proceedings that have taken place behind closed doors in Oslo, is it right that such a man can be declared of a sane and sound mind?
As in cases such as these, passions run high. Despite the restrictions placed on the reporting and televising of the high-profile trial, Anders Breivik found numerous opportunities to expound to the global audience his reasons and motives behind the actions that turned the media spotlight onto Norway.
Clearly an educated individual, Breivik was fully aware of the impact that strong, well reasoned arguments would have on an enraged public. Throughout the trial, his face remained largely impassive, his actions assured, and his voice and language confident. He did not acknowledge the charges against him, yet nor did he deny that he had committed the crimes. His reasoning for choosing the victims focused on the Norwegian Labour Party, with their ‘promotion’ of multiculturalism representing a threat for both Norway and Europe. His actions were calculated in the movement of emergency forces, and his executions were deadly in their accuracy and speed. This was a man who knew that he would be infamous, and thus was not willing to die for his cause. This cowardliness was a sign of the rationality of a man who wanted the chance to take to the media stage and explain his brilliance to the world. Dead, he would simply be another fanatic madman on whom only posthumous attention would be focused. Alive, he could act as a beacon to the nationalist militants who he claimed to represent the world over. However, the sanity of a man believing he is acting on a higher duty has to be questioned.
Intelligence, mental strength and a strong verbal propensity are dangerous weapons for a man who knows he is doomed. Norway does not hold the death penalty as a judicial punishment; indeed, it says a lot about Norway’s history of crime that the maximum punishment for homicide is a paltry 21 years. Breivik was confident that a jail sentence would vindicate his actions as those of a rebellion against Norway’s government. His greatest fear, shown at times by the urgency which accompanied his assurances to the court that he was of a sound mind, was that the court would dismiss his actions as those of a madman, and certify him to be kept indefinitely in a mental institution. In his mind, this would dismiss his complex political theories, tarnish his image as a political freedom fighter, and consign him to the lists of lunatics who had killed people for no reason at all. It showed an untouchable belief in himself, convinced of his divine purpose. To this extent, two sets of psychiatrists disagreed on his mental condition. Breivik was so sure of his actions, that not to recognise the extent of the wrongdoing was a sign of his insanity. Yet it was his ability to reason this out over many prolonged conversations that persuaded the court of his sanity.
Public moods demand the worst possible punishment for crimes of this nature. Doubtless many onlookers (myself initially included) hoped for Breivik to be discredited, to see his confident, assured demeanour break down under a sentence of insanity. However, this trial was not about punishing the one individual who caused so much hurt and anguish in Norway. This was about bringing closure to the families of the victims, albeit a painful experience for all who faced Breivik either directly or indirectly. To declare insane a man who had ruined so many families would have been to dismiss the effect of the actions, and allow the man responsible to be covered by a claim of diminished responsibility – a result that neither party wanted.
The maximum punishment of 21 years is not what all would have liked to see handed down to Anders Breivik. It is almost beyond doubt that this sentence will be prolonged, through public pressure and memory; Breivik is unlikely to experience freedom again. By recognising this self styled saviour of Europe as representation of the growing threat to Western values and society, Norway has elected to place in the spotlight the real, serious problems that face the modern world today. ‘Home-grown’ extremists are one of the emerging challenges to civilized values, democracy and safety. Today, this outcome is a mark of how seriously Norway, and the rest of the world, should take the threat to domestic terrorism.