Leading article: Anders Breivik trial exemplified Norway's strengths

Breivik seemed to believe that being found sane would help validate his views

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If any good whatsoever has come out of the atrocities committed in Norway a year ago, it is to be found in the response of the country's authorities and of the Norwegians themselves. That response reached its logical conclusion yesterday in the conviction of 33-year-old Anders Breivik for terrorism and premeditated murder and his 21-year prison sentence – the maximum available to a Norwegian court.

The scale of the Breivik's crime defies comprehension. He set about killing as many people as he could, and he did so in a particularly calculating manner, collecting the weapons and ammunition over time, arranging elaborate decoys and methodically hunting his victims down. He claimed to be acting to save Norway from a supposed threat to its survival from immigration and Islam, and had read and written volumes trying to justify his case. He will spend at least 10 years in a special three-room cell, isolated for his own and other prisoners' protection.

There will be those who regard the sentence as too lenient and the conditions of his detention as too comfortable. Such assessments might reflect some innate sense of fairness, or Breivik's slight smile on hearing the verdict and his decision not to appeal. Any such view, however, has to be a comment less on the particular judgment than on Norwegian justice in general. This is the toughest punishment Norway can legally muster. It is to the credit of the country's politicians that they did not try to legislate for new penalties retrospectively. Breivik was tried, convicted and sentenced according to the law of the land.

It is true that, after admitting the killings, Breivik had made no secret of his hope that he would be found sane and sent to prison, rather than being committed to a psychiatric institution as being of unsound mind. With the sort of perverted logic that characterised his crimes, he appeared to believe that being found sane would somehow validate his views. But again, Norwegian justice emerges well. Before the trial, experts had been divided about his state of mind. After hearing the evidence, the five-judge panel concluded unanimously that he had known what he was doing. This was the more courageous course, not only because that is what Breivik wanted, but because identifying dangerous views with madness is the escape route totalitarian regimes tend to favour. Norway has shown that it is prepared to take on the likes of Breivik and defeat them on their arguments.

To this can be added the humanity, dignity and lack of panic with which Norway's leaders responded to the country's most heinous act of terrorism; the efficiency with which Breivik was brought to trial; the openness of the harrowing and sometimes inflammatory court proceedings, and the national consensus against Breivik's views which held firm throughout the year. And the question then has to be posed as to whether any other country would have handled a similar shock so well.

Even where Norway found its system wanting – an official investigation blamed the police for early failures that allowed Breivik to reach the Utoeya Island youth camp and prompted the police chief's resignation – it was perhaps too hard on itself. In Breivik, the Oslo police were up against a lone and highly motivated individual – the most dangerous and unpredictable adversary any security service can have. Norway had experienced nothing of the kind before, and a relatively relaxed attitude to public security was, in its way, a positive reflection of the country's abiding sense of safety.

The young lives cut down by Anders Breivik cannot be brought back; the grief will endure, and Norway will be a warier, less innocent place for a long time. But confronted with an extreme atrocity, its social tolerance and respect for the law remained intact. Much went wrong on 22 July 2011, but it is worth recalling that, in the horrific aftermath, a great deal also went right.

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