Amol Rajan: Listening to Breivik is the civilised thing to do

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The Independent Online

I know what you're thinking, because sometimes I think it too. You look at the bovine, witless features of Anders Breivik in that Oslo courtroom and you think: maybe capital punishment isn't so bad after all.

You remember the 77 people he murdered, grimly observe the fist-salute he performs daily, notice that horrible pencil-thin beard, and ask why a platform is being given to his fascistic worldview. You wonder if, instead, a few choice electrodes might be acquainted with his ball sack, and a small victory for humanity thereby chalked up. Then you wonder if, with the aid of a noose, we might get a bigger one still.

That Breivik should call for his own death penalty – as he did yesterday, saying only that or total acquittal would be a "just" outcome – strengthens your conviction. Why not just let him hang?

A lot of people are thinking along these lines. Is this what you think too? Well, don't. Fight it. Sling it out of your mind, and console yourself that Breivik is getting a platform because he lives in a country which, through its judicial process, is at the forefront of civilisation. Norway has left the temptations of barbarism (which is what capital punishment – murder of individuals by the state – amounts to) behind, and for that we should all be grateful.

As Freya Berry, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, put it in an elegant column for this newspaper yesterday: "We cannot fight hate with hate." Like my esteemed colleague Owen Jones earlier this week, she quoted the exemplary Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, who said the country's response to this massacre would be "more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation".

That is exactly right, and in resisting the impatience of those who want Breivik's punishment to be swift and merciless, Stoltenberg has recognised a philosophical distinction of great historical importance.

Retribution is of two kinds: first, social, also known as justice; and second, individual, also known as revenge. The mark of a civilised society is that it promotes the messy frustrations and delays of the former over the false and instant consolation of the latter. Capital punishment is wrong because it is ineffective, unjust, and uncivilised. No reliable evidence exists of its efficacy as a deterrent; there are countless examples of miscarriages of justice that cannot be reversed; and countries that resist its temptations tend to be those that also promote open justice and transparency. Its abolition is therefore a modernising force.

In helping Norway to set an example for all humanity, some good is yet emerging from the turpitudinous life of this smiling assassin.