The Norwegian Court sentenced Anders Behring Breivik on Friday 24th August 2012 to 21 years in prison, with a minimum of 10 years to be served. He was unanimously judged to be sane, and thus legally responsible for his actions.
In Britain this sentence seems ridiculously lenient, perhaps even offensively so, however in reality Breivik will probably be in jail for the rest of his life. Norway can continue detaining him in prison after his sentence ends if he persists to be a threat to society. This ‘preventative detention’ will likely keep him inside for a long, long time.
Importantly, Breivik has been found ‘sane’ despite the contradictory psychological reports. This has been welcomed by many of the victims’ families because it ensures Breivik is held accountable for his actions and they cannot simply be dismissed as the actions of a crazy person. The finding of sanity ensures the whole of Norwegian society and the world cannot ignore the actions and ideology Breivik propagates. We must ask how this man came to believe such horrendous ideals and learn from it.
Moreover, other ultra-right wing nationalists’ organisations do not have the chance to hide behind a verdict of insanity. They cannot explain away Breivik actions as that of a deluded extreme madman. Therefore, it highlights the worrying truth behind these right wing groups and the ultimate danger of what their beliefs may lead to.
Another controversial aspect of the case concerns the way in which Breivik was able to use the court as a pulpit to voice his opinions and beliefs, beliefs that no doubt inspired the deaths of 77 innocent human beings as well as the immense suffering of their families. Yesterday, after the judgement was delivered from the bench, Breivik apologised to fellow extremists for not killing more people on the day of his spree. This kind of talk is abhorrent to the whole of humanity, but it is right that Norway allowed the trial to proceed with customary openness.
It is never right to silence someone’s opinion. No matter how wrong their opinion may be perceived to be. John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty sets out very clearly the reasons why disallowing freedom of expression can be detrimental to all of mankind. Mill states, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race”.
Fundamentally, something can always be learnt from listening to the opinions of others and it is to everyone’s detriment not to listen, not just to the detriment of the man who is not heard. If the opinion of the silenced person turns out to be right, we are all “deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth”, but if the opinion silenced is wrong “we lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error”. Mill’s wisdom is undeniable and, in my opinion, it is still an important notion that we must hold on to in the modern world. By listening to Breivik, society’s boundaries are reaffirmed and we unite together against an unwanted evil.
Finally, it is important to emphasise the crucial role that open justice has in any democratic society. Justice must be seen to be done and criminal trials often offer the community a period of catharsis and reflection that is needed in order to progress. Crimes against humanity shall not be tolerated and this message is unequivocally exclaimed to the rest of the world.