Why Norway Is Satisfied with Breivik’s Sentence

The sentence preserves the country's image of possessing a rehabilitative rather than a retributive justice system. And if Anders Behring Breivik is not fully reformed, his term in prison can be extended in five-year increments after the initial 21-year chunk

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Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is escorted out the courtroom at the end of his trial in Oslo on Aug. 24, 2012

In a case that tested Norway’s proud tradition of liberal justice to its limit, a five-judge panel in Oslo decided anti-Islamic mass killer Anders Behring Breivik was more evil than sick and sentenced him to the maximum 21 years in prison. The decision, coming more than four months after his trial began, was greeted with confused dismay by most overseas observers but was well received by the murderer of 77 people, as it was by the surviving victims, the families of the dead and most of the country.

For the survivors and the bereaved families, a sane man can now be properly punished, while Breivik will feel he can still burnish his credentials as a political terrorist, without being written off as a madman. In a paradoxical moment in the packed courtroom, as the verdict was read out, survivors of Breivik’s attack hugged one another even as the gunman smiled in satisfaction just a few feet away.

But in the country still profoundly shocked by the July 2011 slaughter, the overwhelming emotion is relief. Breivik has said for months that if found sane, he would not seek to overturn the decision in a higher court, adding in a final moment that he would not “legitimize” it by appealing the verdict. The prosecution, which in a reversal of established courtroom tradition had demanded Breivik’s compulsory mental-health care, said it too would spare the country an appeal and the prospect of a painful repeat of the trial.

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Tore Sinding Bekkedal, a survivor of Breivik’s attack on Utoya Island who heard dozens of his friends murdered as he hid inside a toilet, says: “I am relieved to see this verdict. The temptation for people to fob him off as a madman has now gone.” It would have been impossible, he says, to square the years of planning and meticulous construction of the bomb that killed eight in the center of Oslo with insanity. John Hestnes, head of the victims’ support group, adds: “I am delighted with this. He did this. He is not crazy, and this means that he will be punished for what he has done.”

Regarded with astonishment from overseas, the 21-year maximum sentence — for detonating a lethal truck bomb and then driving to Utoya Island and shooting, point-blank, 69 people, mostly teenage members of the Labor Party youth wing — remains an important principle of a justice system that believes in rehabilitation over retribution. Bjorn Magnus Ihler, another Utoya survivor, says: “That’s how it should work. That’s staying true to our principles and the best evidence that he hasn’t changed society.”

But Breivik should not imagine he will ever walk free. If he is still considered dangerous after 21 years, his sentence can be extended in five-year increments for the rest of his life, which is a likely outcome given his glorification of violence, lack of remorse and desire to have killed more people. “He will be 53 at the time of his release,” said judge Arne Lyng, reading from the 90-page judgment, “although the court finds it improbable that the defendant will be released. Our democracy will still exist, it will still have different cultures and different religions. After having served his sentence, the perpetrator will probably still have the desire and the will to carry out violence and murder.”

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Some are outraged at the comforts of the three-room cell he will occupy in Ila Prison in Oslo, complete with gym equipment, computer and television. Mette Yvonne Larsen, a lawyer representing dozens of bereaved families, says the Ministry of Justice should take a look at this relative opulence. But largely, Breivik can now finally be ignored — which is what Norway has always wanted to do with the stain of his premeditated massacre.

Mustafa Rashid, father of Bano, the first of the July 22 victims to be buried, and Kjell Fredrik Lie, father of Elisabeth, who was buried last, have both said they would waste no energy hating or even thinking about the terrorist. They claim to speak for the country. Breivik’s final volley — an acid apology to “militant nationalists” that he had not managed to kill more — was drowned out by the judge, who cut off his microphone and told him to stay quiet. Norwegians will hope this verdict effectively does the same.

For a country determined to move on but cursed to never forget, there are many things that will remain troubling. After the car bomb was detonated, why was the description of a man in police uniform and his license-plate number allowed to hang around on a sticky note in a police control room while the suspect passed two cop cars on his way to Utoya? Could he have bluffed his way onto the island with a box full of guns if the media had been used to circulate his description in the minutes after the bomb attacks? How do the police explain their failure to make it to the island quicker? Could a sharper intelligence service have picked up Breivik in the months leading up to the killings when agents were warned by customs officials that Breivik was purchasing suspicious chemicals from nearby Poland? The former Minister of Justice, two police chiefs and the head of the intelligence service have all already resigned, but whispers have even begun about Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister, who was such a symbol of Norwegian unity in the days after last year’s attacks, remaining in his job.

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Questions will inevitably be asked too about the role of psychiatry in the trial, including the folly of trying to draw the line between mad and bad. By any lay measure, Breivik is a combination of the two, evidenced by his weird twitches, blank face, lack of emotion as he described murdering scores of children and the sheer scale of his crimes. Even the psychiatrists, whose weeks of testimonies were supposed to cast his sanity within a legal framework, could not agree on his mental state. Two pairs of state-sponsored shrinks reported contradictory findings in the run-up to this trial and stuck to their diagnoses under long cross-examination.

The sentence effectively exonerated the diagnosis of Breivik as a nonpsychotic terrorist with narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. The reputations of the other doctors, who diagnosed the killer with psychotic paranoid schizophrenia, are in tatters. But so too is their whole profession. The Minister of Justice has already pledged to look at the role of forensic psychiatry in Norwegian courts. It seems clear the relationship will change.

In essence, though, Norwegians feel proud that their society is fundamentally unchanged. The scenes of jubilation inside the court attest to the victims’ belief in the country’s liberal justice. And as far as justice can ever be done for a crime this heinous, this is probably it. A plurality of Norwegians wanted Breivik punished for his crimes. But, more than that, in the end they just wanted him gone. The man who stained the rocks and trees of Utoya with the blood of the country’s brightest young people will almost certainly never be free again. At the end of this exhausting trial, that is enough for most.

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