The trial of Anders Behring Breivik

As I write Norway is into its seventh day of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who killed, by his own admission, 77 people in and near Oslo on July 22, 2011. That day will “live in infamy,” echoing the words of President Franklin Roosevelt to a joint session of Congress concerning the attack by the Imperial Japanese navy on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Few outside Norway, or the Nordic countries, realize how thoroughly dominating is the news of Breivik on the Norwegian people. Here we are, a full nine months since these atrocities, and almost every day this man is not only in the news; he is the news. A few weekends back, anticipating the trial, one of the national newspapers published a full 32-page supplement, entirely on him.

What a travesty is this whole circus! We have the suffering families of lost ones in our midst, with almost all others offering condolence and support; we also have those seriously injured physically among us, having lost limbs or having debilitating internal injuries; we have many more emotionally damaged for having witnessed and survived this horrible carnage.

As the trial began, the defendant entered the courtroom not in an orange prison jumpsuit while handcuffed and shackled with leg irons, as would have been the case in an American court; he appeared, yes, wearing handcuffs, but in a business suit and tie. For the trial his handcuffs were removed! How astonishing!

Lead prosecutor Inga Bejer Engh opened the proceedings upon being recognized by the Court by reading the entire list of those killed by Breivik, with brief descriptions of their fatal injuries, like “brain stem incursion,” etc. Norwegian TV, covering the event comprehensively, did not allow transmission of the sound of these descriptions. American CNN, getting the raw feed, did transmit them, at least for some of the victims. The defendant sat emotionless, with occasional moments of apparent pride at his sordid accomplishments.

The Norwegian criminal court procedure is substantially different from the American. First, this is essentially a “bench trial,” meaning that the panel of five judges decide the outcome. Of these, two are professionally appointed lawyers, but three are citizen judges. The clear meaning is that judge and jury are combined. While the epithet, “You are acting as judge and jury combined,” is pejorative to an American, to a Norwegian this is standard practice. No one here, however, including me as an American observer, thinks that the defendant is prejudiced by this system. There are indeed enough checks and balances.

What is different, however, is the expectation of the defendant’s participation. Whereas in an American court a criminal defendant rarely testifies, in a Norwegian court, where there is no “Fifth Amendment” active, the defendant must testify. Of course, he can keep his mouth closed, but such failure to testify can readily be adjudged an admission of guilt. All of this is moot in the case of Breivik, because he welcomes the Court as his stage, to spout all of his hateful message over and over again. He did this on invitation of the prosecution who first called him, and no doubt will do so again when the defense calls.

Among his most outrageous statements was that he wanted to decapitate the former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland while videorecording the event for dissemination on the Internet. Gro Harlem is a much loved person in Norway, frequently cited at the “Mother of Norway.” There sat Breivik, unencumbered by restraints. A terrible thought crossed my mind: “What is to prevent this man from having an instantaneous outburst to break of the neck of a jurist before he can be stopped? He surely knows how.” We can only hope fervently that such scenario is purely hypothetical.

So the circus continues, perhaps for 10 weeks, at tremendous expense to the country. How much better it would have been immediately last July 22, to have recognized this threat against the state, and to have met it with military precision, neutralizing the enemy on the field of battle. That would have been an honorable conclusion for the episode and the country. We did not need to recognize again the civility of the Norwegian people, clearly on display now. That was firmly established long ago.

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