Owen Jones: Norway's dignity in the aftermath of Breivik is an example to the rest of us

What our rulers could learn from the country's Prime Minister

Owen Jones
Friday 20 April 2012 21:03

Would the British political establishment have been able to resist demands for the restoration of the death penalty if such a horrifying massacre had taken place here? Support for capital punishment remains largely passive, but widespread; it occasionally surges in the aftermath of horrifying crimes, particularly when children are involved, such as the Soham murders in 2003. But what if a bomb detonated outside our Parliament, followed by the systematic, methodical slaughter of dozens of teenagers?

Norway is undoubtedly a very different society to our own: the last execution in peacetime took place in 1876, nearly a century before the last man was hanged in Britain. In the aftermath of far-right terrorist Anders Breivik's unbearable massacre, just 16 per cent of Norwegians advocated the return of the death penalty.

Even when the country remained in a state of shock just five days after 77 civilians were murdered, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg struck a defiant note that would have been unthinkable in many countries. "The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation," he said. No crackdowns on civil liberties, but a pledge not to allow a fanatic to succeed in eroding Norway's democracy.

And so Norway's justice system plays it by the book. It has been suggested that Breivik is insane, rather than consumed by an ideological hatred of Muslims and socialists: not a qualification generally given for Islamic terrorists, it must be said. The latest psychiatric assessment found that he was not "psychotic", overturning the verdict of an earlier criticised report, but his mental state will be determined during the trial. Breivik has declared that to send a "political activist" to a psychiatric hospital would be "sadistic", "evil" and "the ultimate humiliation": but it will be due process, not revenge, that determines where he will be locked up. Prison cells in Norway are the stuff of Daily Mail nightmares, and he could end up with a flat-screen TV, a personal trainer and even a rock-climbing wall.

Parts of the trial are televised, although key elements will not be – including Breivik's testimony, depriving him of the platform he clearly craves. What has already emerged is a smiling, unrepentant terrorist, weeping only at his own propaganda film. One of the most chilling moments was an exchange of handshakes with prosecutors, court officials and the psychiatrist: as if to say "pleased to do business with you", as they greet a man who mercilessly hunted down children to slaughter. But again, Norwegian court protocol was simply being observed, summing up this whole process – no exceptions would be made, however grotesque the crime.

And as Norway's justice system treats him as any other defendant, the country sends a defiant message that the horrors of July 2011 will not change it.

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