Faced with Breivik's unflinching account, Norway surprises world with its civility

A reporter covering Anders Behring Breivik's trial marvels at the degree of civility Norwegians have shown him, considering the brutality of the July 2011 terror attacks and his lack of remorse.

Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/AP
Anders Behring Breivik sits in the Oslo Courthouse, Norway, Thursday, May 3, on the 11th day of the terror trial.

In the first two weeks of Anders Behring Breivik's trial, the Norwegian man reiterated his conviction that he did the right thing when he killed 77 people on July 22, 2011 – even if it meant shooting unarmed Labor party youth members as young as 14 trapped on an island or bombing government buildings in Oslo. Those killed were “legitimate political targets,” he said.

The attacks were “gruesome but necessary" for preventing Labor from continuing to undermine Norwegian society with its lenient immigration policies, Mr. Breivik said. The party had betrayed the country by promoting the Islamic colonization of Norway and ipso facto the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians. He would do it all again, he said. 

International onlookers have been shocked to see how civil the whole trial is proceeding, given the scale and brutality of his crimes – together they are the worst national tragedy the country has experienced since World War II – and Breivik's lack of remorse. 

On April 16, the first day of the 10-week trial, a lineup of prosecutors, forensic psychiatrists, and the legal counsel for the victims all approached Breivik in court to shake his hand. Wearing a suit and neatly trimmed beard, he politely extended his right hand to greet them. Outside, people lined up orderly to enter Oslo District Court. There was not a single sign denouncing him, nor any banners calling for the death penalty.

On the second day of the trial, he was allowed to begin his six-day testimony of what happened in the years leading up to the attack, including his preparation for that day. At the end of the first week he recounted, in chilling detail, of how, after packing a ham and cheese sandwich that morning, he shot and killed 69 people at the Labor party youth summer camp on Utøya with a Glock pistol and Ruger semi-automatic rifle.

If this all sounds surreal, that’s because it is. 

It is surreal to see a well-dressed upper class man sit in a court and calmly explain how he killed Norwegians to prevent Norway’s demise. It’s incomprehensible to hear how a man, who supposedly had all the economic means and generous provisions of a cradle-to-grave welfare system, could turn into Norway’s most notorious killer in modern times. And that is part of what scares Norwegians: the thought that he is one of them. 

Despite the atrocity of his crimes and his behavior, Norwegians still want to see him get a fair trial. But that means he has a legal right to explain himself in court, even if there is a risk that he spreads his propaganda. The trial is also key in determining Breivik's sanity, which is at the crux of this case. The prosecution even defended his right to keep reading from his prepared speech on his first day of testimony in spite of protests from the legal counsel for the victims, who were offended by his one-hour long monologue. 

What’s even more surreal is that people are not angry. Last week, about a dozen witnesses from the government attack explained where they were that day when a bomb blast ripped through the streets of downtown Oslo, altering their lives forever. They recounted nightmares, weeks spent in coma, and amputated limbs without courtroom outbursts. None of them glanced at Breivik, opting instead to stare at the prosecution on the opposite side of the courtroom. They could have used the opportunity to berate or belittle him for ruining their lives, but they didn’t. One government worker victim who testified about the Oslo bomb blast said he opted to remain stoic in court because Breivik “had taken enough of [his] time.” 

Breivik finally hit a nerve when he called Norwegians' beloved children’s song “Children of the Rainbow” a Marxist tool used to brainwash Norwegian schoolchildren. Forty thousand took to the streets last week and, bearing roses and singing the song he so hates, marched from Youngstorget, the square in front of Labor party headquarters, up the streets to Oslo District Court

The original Rose March was held three days after the attacks. Hundreds of thousands turned up to show their support for the victims. Breivik called it a “typical Norwegian reaction." On April 23, in reference to last year's march, Breivik said, “It’s not allowed to be angry and furious [in Norway]. It is illogical. There aren’t too many countries that would have reacted like that.” 

Norwegians may not be mad now, but if the judges determine that Breivik is insane and therefore not criminally punishable for his actions, they could be. There might not be a lynch mob mentality, as Breivik originally believed, but there could be a deep sense of frustration knowing that he has gotten away with his crimes without having to serve prison time. 

If Breivik is found to be insane, he would be remanded to compulsory mental health care until he is no longer considered a danger to society. In a worst-case scenario for victims, Breivik will be considered cured and released. Even if he was deemed sane, the maximum sentence he could receive is 21 years in Norway, although there is the possibility of a prolonged stay under preventive custody. 

That outcome hinges on him no longer being deemed a danger to society. The possibility of him being put out on the streets again is highly unlikely, but it is still a remote possibility in a society based on a criminal justice system created before there ever was an Anders Behring Breivik.

Valeria Criscione is the Monitor's correspondent in Oslo. 

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