Norwegian Justice 101

Although this is usually just a research blog, I feel compelled to comment on the Anders Behring Breivik verdict, since I’m seeing so many responses from outside Norway that indicate a lot of confusion over this case. So here we go:

At the same time that nearly all of Norway is breathing a sigh of relief over the sentence handed down to Anders Behring Breivik on Friday, people in the US and UK are expressing consternation over what is perceived there as far too lenient a judgment. Both the Nordic countries and the Anglo-American sphere have relatively similar democratic roots—after all the Norwegian constitution was modeled in part on the American one—so why the enormous disconnect in responses to the verdict?

The answer, I think, lies in in how the very notion of democracy is interpreted in Norway compared to in the United States. Starting with virtually identical definitions of democracy, justice, and equality, the two nations have parted ways historically in how to apply those principles in practice.

Democracy is fundamentally an idealistic rather than a pragmatic political ideology. Democracy as a political system strives for equality, for the protection of the individual, and for shared access to power through representation, among other things. In the US, there has always been a tacit understanding that some people are more equal than others, and we as a culture have tended to admire people with that kind of privilege. We have decided that they contribute more to our common good than other people, and have often granted them special treatment. Now of course the same thing happens in Norway (Norway’s analog to Donald Trump is named Kjell Inge Røkke, and he got his start in the fishing industry in Seattle in the 1980s, as it happens). But the difference here is that the idealism of democracy was taken much more seriously in the twentieth century than it was in the US. Basically, Norway implemented something equivalent to the “New Deal,” and then just kept going with it in a constant quest to achieve a greater degree of equality before the law.

Norway as a society is obsessively concerned with “fairness.” It is the guiding principle in almost everything that happens here, and is a key element in what might loosely be called “national identity” here. “Fairness,” “equality,” and “solidarity” are probably the concepts most closely linked to democracy here. Conversely, Americans equate “democracy” with individual “freedom.” But democracy without solidarity and fairness is actually pretty far afield from what most Norwegians would consider to be “true” democracy, and dangerously close to mere justification of self-interest.

So what does this have to do with the criminal justice system and the recent Breivik verdict? Breivik is the ultimate test case for Norwegian democracy. If the principles of this society are truly valid, they had to apply to him (in excruciating exactness) too. Were there any hint of deviation from principle in the application of the law to his actions, and the whole system would be undermined. Given that the maximum sentence in Norway has been twenty-one years, it would have been undemocratic to change the laws for the “special case” of Breivik. Period.

But Norwegians aren’t stupid and naive (despite what Brits and Americans have been saying). They know that it is so unlikely that he will change his views as to be preposterous. They know that he is a threat, and there is a legal mechanism in place to address that threat, namely “forvaring.” “Forvaring” means that the state has the right to apply to have his sentence extended in five-year increments, potentially for the rest of his life. Three months before the end of his twenty-one-year sentence the state will have him evaluated. If it is determined that he is still a threat to society, he will remain in prison for five more years. If, contrary to expectation, he truly no longer poses a threat, he will be released. And why shouldn’t he? He will have served his punishment. The damage to the victims is irreparable no matter what happens to him, and nothing can ever really atone for that. Whether he serves twenty-one years or seventy-one years is completely arbitrary.

Yes, Norway may go on to reevaluate its penal code, and may even implement capital punishment at some point (they did it with WWII traitors, and it is conceivable that it could happen again). But you can’t change the rules of the game midstream. And yes, there is a danger that Breivik will be released when he really should have remained in prison. That would be horrible, and the people who will make the decision will have an enormous responsibility. We can only hope they will be reliable and make the right decision.

I think too that Americans and Brits have been assuming that Norwegians are somehow not upset enough over Breivik’s actions, that people here simply are unaffected by what he did, and just not angry enough. If you think this, you are profoundly wrong. This has affected everyone who lives here. The very foundation of our society was challenged. This man hunted down children as though he was skeet shooting. This man is warped, a true monster. I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that every one here would love to see him suffer, show real remorse, and beg for forgiveness. The fact that he isn’t doing that demonstrates exactly how much of a monster he is. But he is, whether we like it or not, one of us. We produced him. He is a member of this society and, again whether we like it or not, he has exactly the same rights as the rest of us. The irony of the fact that his actions were a direct attack on this system is not lost on us. This is why we feel we have won a moral, albeit heartbreakingly Pyrrhic, victory with this verdict.


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