A recent Record Searchlight editorial, like many newspaper articles in the wake of Anders Breivik’s killing spree in Norway last summer, picked up on the plush-sounding conditions in which Breivik is being held, the “country club” prison in which he will serve any sentence, and the duration of that sentence, theoretically capped at 21 years. The trial of the man who claimed to be defending himself against multiculturalism has been making headlines in Uganda, and featuring on CNN screens I occasionally see around town, so I’d been thinking about it even before the editorial raised these issues.
I believe I’m correct in thinking that the Norwegian judiciary could conceivably extend Breivik’s sentence indefinitely if it believed him to be a continuing threat to the public (and his own utterances seem calculated to ensure that he remains under lock and key).
But more importantly, I think the fact that the Norwegian justice system is struggling a bit over what to make of Breivik, a man who looks truly horrifying against the backdrop of a social democratic prison system, is a positive thing. For one, it shows how rare a case like Breivik is. Mass murderers are not a dime a dozen in Norway, and so this all might look naive from the vantage point of a country that seems to experience at least annual school shootings, and which steadfastly refuses to learn anything from those shootings.
I think it is also positive that the cold-blooded murder of 77 people did not send Norway into paroxysm of hand-wringing hatred. There was no rush to sacrifice social democratic values on the altar of security. There was no move to drastically overhaul the criminal justice system to undermine civil liberties (where specific alterations have been made, they’ve been in health law rather than anti-terrorism legislation, and even these have drawn strong criticism). There were no military prisons set up. The Norwegian justice system is trying to deal with Breivik as it would any other criminal, and if the visual is occasionally jarring, the effort is a noble one.
We might be tempted to mock the easy life that Norwegian prisons appear to offer, but I think that Norway’s low criminal recidivism rate is what we should be really looking at. It is a criminal justice system that puts emphasis on both words, and which is focussed more on bringing people back into society than on punishing them. Our own prison system, particularly in California, is a joke, and does sterling work in turning petty criminals into hardened ones, and giving them a free networking session to boot. And for all that people here carry on about how social democracy grinds people down and steals their freedom, I doubt that you could find a more open and free society than Norway’s. Having sat in on a trial in the Norwegian Supreme Court, I can say that, coming from the U.S., you really have to see the openness and ease of that and other civic institutions to believe them. It is a breath of fresh air, and a reminder of what true civility and liberty look like.
I was last in Norway in October, and I wondered how much things would have changed after the chilling violence of the summer. My evidence is obviously anecdotal, but the answer seemed to be “they hadn’t”. There was no beefed-up security arriving in Gardermoen, nor in the course of my in-country flight between Oslo and Trondheim. No heavily-armed police in transport stations, around civic buildings, or patrolling airports. And no visible poverty, either, for that matter.
We often talk about “living our values” in the U.S. It’s hard to say how representative our recent history is, but lately we haven’t been particularly good at this. The alternative explanation would be that we are morphing, as a society, into something rather unpleasant. I think we can find a better example of the expression in Norway’s efforts to come to grips with last summer’s brutality.