Freya Berry: Social response to killers is more important than the punishment

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What does a country do with a remorseless, apparently sane, mass-murderer? Unusually, Anders Breivik, perpetrator of the Utoya massacre, was left alive – something even he finds surprising. Now, safely in custody, famously liberal Norway is struggling to know how to deal with him.

The maximum prison sentence Norway offers is 21 years: roughly a third of a year for every person he killed. An insanity plea would render him liable for locking up indefinitely in a psychiatric unit – but Breivik insists he is sound in mind.

Norway has so far preserved its political ethics, balancing Breivik's democratic rights with human decency and caution. Yet what is most notable is not the actions of the judiciary, but the response from the people. A poll by Dagbladet newspaper showed 68 per cent of the population remain opposed to the death penalty. The same newspaper has also introduced a "No Breivik" button, which removes him from its news feed. And of the 139 public tickets for Breivik's hearing, just 50 have been taken up. This behaviour shows a dignified refusal to let his actions and beliefs affect their lives.

This is a country whose Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, regularly cycles to work without security, without a chauffeured car following behind (David Cameron, I'm looking at you). At the memorial service to Breivik's victims, he said "we will never give up our values. Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity."

Meanwhile, since the 7/7 bombings, the UK has sustained wars against two countries; tried to impose 42-day detentions without trial; and is now threatening to introduce secret courts.

When little James Bulger was murdered in 1993 by two 10-year-olds, we tried them as adults, incarcerated them for eight years, and released the perpetrators' identities into a furious public domain. In Norway's city of Trondheim in 1994, two six-year-olds murdered a young girl. All identities remained anonymous, the boys were moved to another school, and neither has reoffended. The authorities treated them as what they were: children.

We cannot fight hate with hate. Norwegians have developed from being the pointy-helmeted, spear-waving scourge of Europe to being one of the world's most peaceful societies. "This will bring us together," said a friend of a Breivik victim. The Norwegian people have shown that the sentencing of a killer is far less important than the social response of those they leave behind.

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