Crime and Punishment

Medicating Morality in Norway

September 11, 2012

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Anders Behring Breivik

I suspect that Norwegians regard themselves as exceptionally decent and highly civilized. Like the rest of Western Europeans, they eschew the death penalty and cast a horrified glance at unruly places such as Texas and Florida, where killers still have to consider the possibility of facing a syringe-wielding executioner.

But the recent trial and sentencing of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo suggests comparisons of these Viking marauders”€™ cultured descendants with those less-civilized people who cannot discard the primitive notion that cold-blooded murderers”€™ innocent victims are owed something”€”justice, perhaps”€”and that the murderers are perhaps very bad people who plan and do terrible things and should pay a steep price for the misery they inflict on others.

Breivik is not an ordinary mass murderer. Last year he shattered his country with a killing spree that left 77 Norwegians dead, including several children. This was a particularly gruesome case for the Norwegians”€”a proud, smirking, child-slaying monster in the midst of a violence-loathing people. What do you do with someone such as this? It would not be a hard question for some societies (put him at the end of a rope or in front of a firing squad), but for the Norwegians it was very complicated and agonizing.

“€œWhen is someone who has proudly murdered 77 people no longer a threat?”€

Was Breivik sane? It depends. From a layperson’s perspective he certainly appeared to be. He knew who he was and where he was. He planned, systematically carried out, and appeared to be pleased with his “€œaccomplishments.”€ But legally, his sanity was a question for the psychiatrists to decide.

Did they find him to be sane? Their definitive, expert, clinical opinion was no…well, actually…yes. Two psychiatrists who examined him pronounced him insane, and under Norwegian law that would mean no prison cell for Norway’s most prolific mass murderer. Even for the high-minded, punishment-averse Norwegians, this was too absurd. Another team of psychiatrists opined that he was sane. Who was right? Perhaps they should have resorted to a coin flip.

Breivik went to trial and a panel of five judges rendered a verdict of guilty and sentenced him to 21 years in prison, the maximum penalty under Norwegian law for any criminal. That comes out to a little over three months in prison for each of his 77 victims.

Ah, yes”€”the victims! But they are of less concern than how Mr. Breivik’s psychic profile is construed and what “€œtreatment”€ might be his due. The sentence could be extended beyond the 21 years if it is determined at the point of release that he remains a threat. When is someone who has proudly murdered 77 people no longer a threat? Who would be arrogant or stupid enough to answer that question and want to be held accountable? What if we could somehow know that he was not a threat? Should a man who has done something like this ever be permitted to walk freely among other human beings? What kind of people lavish such concern over someone who murdered their children?

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