As killer gloats in court, Norway shows no anger

You would have forgiven Norwegians for showing more outrage against confessed mass killer Anders Behring Breivik.

By (AP)

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Published: Mon 23 Apr 2012, 9:31 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:41 AM

When he walks in to court flashing a right-wing salute. When he testifies effortlessly about killing their children, brothers and sisters as if they were flies. When he calls his teenage victims traitors who deserved to die for their political views.

The subdued atmosphere during the trial of a right-wing fanatic who confessed to slaughtering 77 people on July 22 reflects Norway’s almost self-punishing efforts to avoid feelings of vengeance against the unrepentant gunman.

“This is the Norwegian way,” said Trond Henry Blattmann, whose 17-year-old son was among the 69 people killed in Breivik’s shooting massacre on Utoya island. “We need to carry this out in a dignified manner. If people were shouting and screaming this would be a circus and not a trial. We don’t want it to be a circus.”

Like other Scandinavians, Norwegians are not prone to express their emotions out loud. But the good behavior of the crowd inside courtroom 250 has surprised even some local observers.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at Oslo University, said that by treating the trial with “respect and decency,” Norwegians are showing defiance against Breivik by standing up for values at the core of their national identity.

When he called Breivik “pudgy” in Norwegian media before the trial, Eriksen said some people took offense.

“I received mail from people who said ‘you shouldn’t say that about his appearance. He has a mother. We have to treat him with respect.’”

Breivik has admitted setting off a car bomb outside the government headquarters, killing eight, before unleashing a shooting massacre at the governing Labor Party’s youth camp on Utoya.

But he denies criminal guilt and rejects the authority of the court, saying it is a vehicle of a “multiculturalist” conspiracy to destroy Norway.

His testimony, which is set to end Monday, has been horrific. A hushed courtroom heard his macabre account of point-blank executions of shell-shocked youth on Utoya. The bereaved embraced and sobbed, but they let him finish, holding back the urge to scream out in agony.

“I think everybody has that urge. Even his lawyers have that urge. But will that help us?” asked Blattmann. “It would just give the terrorist more publicity.”

The “dignity” of the process has won praise in Norwegian media. But between breaks there is sometimes discussions in the corridors about whether Breivik deserves it.

“It puzzles me a little bit,” said Thomas Indreboe, a citizen judge who was dismissed from the case for an online comment that Breivik should get the death penalty, which is not applied in Europe, except for in Belarus.

“When you look at other countries, people shout and scream,” he told The Associated Press.

Indreboe said he “didn’t quite understand” why Breivik got to start his defense by reading an hour-long statement about his extremist political views. And he stands by his opinion that Breivik deserves to be put to death.

“Because what he did is so serious and horrible. There is no other justice,” Indreboe told the AP.

Most people here say it’s important that Breivik — like anybody accused of a crime — gets a chance to explain himself in an open court, despite the scale of the attacks.

That approach contrasts with how the U.S. has dealt with the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Barack Obama wanted to close the Guantanamo prison and try the men in civilian court but was rebuffed by Congress, and the administration moved the case back to the military’s war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo.

“I think it’s being handled in a good way,” Jannike Berger, a 25-year-old Oslo teacher said of the Breivik trial. “I think it’s important that it is as open as it is ... and it is important that he gets to explain himself.”

To some foreign observers, Norway’s desire to do right has gone overboard, allowing the confessed mass killer just what he wants: a platform to promote his extreme political ideology. Print media can cover all parts of the trial. Norwegian TV broadcasts much of it live, including when he enters court, but isn’t allowed to show his testimony.

In Germany, particularly sensitive to right-wing extremism, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung criticized how the “the murderer is smiling, grinning gloatingly, clenching his fist” before a world audience.

“The murderer had the center stage, as if the court’s most pressing matter were how he stages himself,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

Others applauded the way Norway has handled the case.

“Norway announced last year that it would respond to the attacks with more openness and democracy and, amazingly, has lived up to that pledge,” Dutch daily De Volkskrant said. “The trial is a demonstration of the strength of democracy against a violent loner who is so weak he feels the need to take up arms.”

Breivik, himself, ridiculed Norway’s maximum prison sentence of 21 years, saying the only proper outcomes of the case would be death or acquittal.

If found sane — a key issue in the case — he would face 21 years in prison though he can be held longer if deemed a danger to society. If sentenced to psychiatric care, in theory he would be released once he’s no longer deemed psychotic and dangerous.

Norwegian legal experts say it’s crucial that every part of the proceedings is conducted by the book so that Breivik cannot claim he didn’t get a fair trial. Many say it’s also important that the gruesome details are documented to make sure that Breivik is kept away from society for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life.

“When Behring Breivik at some point in the future goes to court and demands to be released — whether from a prison or from a psychiatric hospital — the judgment will the be most central document in that evaluation,” Inge D. Hanssen, one of Norway’s most experienced crime reporters wrote in newspaper Aftenposten.

Following Norwegian custom, the prosecutors and even lawyers for the bereaved shook Breivik’s hand on the first day in court. Prosecutors maintain a polite tone, even when Breivik is being evasive or challenges the point of their questions.

The general impression in Norway is that all parties in the case, from the prosecutors to the defense lawyers, are doing a good job.

But Magnus Ranstorp, a terror researcher from the Swedish Defense College, said once they have extracted all the information they want from him, they should increase the pressure.

“He needs to have his world rocked a little bit,” Ranstorp said. “It should not go out this way. It should not be softy softy. It should switch to a different mode so that he understands what he did was pure evil.”

That’s not necessarily how Norway sees it. Outside the Oslo district court, the spirit of facing terror with tolerance that was so strong in Norway after the attacks has returned.

People are attaching roses to the fence surrounding the court, many with messages of support for victims’ families and survivors of the massacre.

The closest thing to anger was a short message scribbled on a card decorated with a ribbon in the red-white-and-blue colors of the Norwegian flag. “Apologize, Breivik,” it said.

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