Breivik Puts Norway on Trial
If Quisling deserved the death penalty . . .

Anders Behring Breivik


John O’Sullivan

Norway’s trial of Anders Behring Breivik for the mass murder of 77 people last year has not really captured the attention of National Review Online as yet, but it is provoking some anguished debates in Norway and across Europe. It is also raising some very uncomfortable questions.

The first such question is: Why should there be a trial at all — or at least a trial that treats the verdict as something in doubt? Everybody knows that Breivik murdered 77 innocent people; we all know just why he did so. His rambling paranoid web attacks on Norway’s social democrats for betraying Christian civilization were given wide publicity on the day after his rampage. Today he is not denying but rather boasting about his crimes. Nothing crucial to justice is in doubt.

Why could the court not simply hear his plea, take very brief factual evidence identifying Breivik as the perpetrator, pronounce him guilty, and then dispatch him off to anonymous obscurity for the rest of his life?

Trials with that brisk format used to take place in Britain following guilty pleas. Something like that could surely have been justified here. Indeed, it might be a moral improvement on what otherwise cannot help being a show trial.

That leads to the second question: Who benefits from a show trial? Is it the prosecution, by getting a large hearing for its case? Or the public, because it learns important lessons from it? Or the perpetrator because, however vile his actions, he looks like a lone man against the world and gains something from that impression?

Some jurists wanted a show trial in Breivik’s case because they thought it would show what a vile monster he undoubtedly is. Norway’s courtroom rules played into that desire. Unfortunately, they also played into Breivik’s calculations, which have turned out to be shrewder. As Dan Hodges — a Blairite commentator on the Daily Telegraph website who is always thoughtful and (on other topics) entertaining — makes the following observation on how the trial is unfolding:

I find its sterility demeaning. The cramped, featureless courtroom. Breivik seated casually at the table between his attorneys, looking like a man taking part in a civil custody hearing, rather than someone on trial for 77 murders.

It’s an environment that appears to be framing Breivik, not cowing or reducing him as I’d hoped. There is no banality of evil on display here. Breivik actually appears quite an imposing figure, his physicality if anything enhanced by his calm, softly spoken interventions.

In this atmosphere Breivik says things that are undoubtedly interesting. His description, for instance, of how he was surprised that many of his victims “froze” rather than attempting to escape was repellent, but it told us something surprising we did not know before. As a result, he becomes a little more interesting himself and so (as is plainly one of his aims) a little less blankly monstrous. Occasionally he even makes little jokes at which people in the courtroom laugh. They laugh — it’s a normal human reaction, hard to avoid — but it further relativizes him and his crimes.

Nothing can make Breivik sympathetic, but he will doubtless be satisfied with planting even the smallest seed of doubt about his utter wickedness or irrationality.

That is why it is so dangerous that he will apparently be allowed to bring on extreme Islamists as witnesses for his defense. In effect he is claiming justified homicide — which in this case means justified mass murder — presumably on the grounds that it is legitimate to murder people if they promote, inter alia, the immigration of extremists.