Rarely has a moment in a country’s history been as significant and insignificant as the judgment that is soon to be passed on Anders Breivik.
This is man who aged just 33 carried out Europe’s worst peacetime atrocity. Bombing Norway’s capital then slaying 69 of its youth. In a country of five million with a murder rate around 30 a year, it is hard to underestimate the shocking nature of what happened in Oslo and on Utoya in July last year. But though a quarter of Norwegians knew or knew of someone involved they have refused to be changed by one man and are almost dismissive of his place in their society.
And that is why this moment is significant and insignificant. It will define whether this country’s most prolific killer committed his crimes when sane or insane. It will test Norway’s judicial system as it’s never been tested before. And it will test the population once more. But in someways it doesn’t matter what the judges decide. The families and friends of Anders Brievik’s victims know all they need to. They know the torment of loss, have lived with it for over a year and will continue to live with that agony irrespective of the courts decision. To them it’s of little consequence whether his were the actions of a sane man or a madman. It changes nothing. He has admitted taking from them those they’ve lost and has sought through his trial to explain his motivation. He has tried to explain the unexplainable and it is lost on them.
They have only one wish. That the man who tore into Norway’s soul will never ever know freedom again. If found to be sane he will be held in prison for 21 years and only released when he is deemed to no longer be a threat to others. It is unlikely that day will come until he is a very old man and it may never come at all.
If found to be insane he will be held in the psychiatric wing of the same prison – cared for as a patient not a prisoner but again until someone dares rule he not longer poses a risk. Perhaps the person to whom the judgment matters most is Breivik himself. He has proudly claimed his actions were “a spectacular” rooted in goodness not evil to avoid Europe wide civil war between Nationalists and Internationalists.
In his view, the killings were in self-defence for him and his country . He has told of his pride in what he did and his fear of being judged a mad man. “Insanity would be the worst thing that could happen to me,” he has said. “It is the ultimate humiliation sending a political activist to a mental hospital is more sadistic and cruel than killing him. It is a fate worse than death. “
Quite which ruling would suit people the best is hard to determine. Sanity raises difficult questions in a country that prides itself on inclusion and respect. Insanity risks absolving Breivik of responsibility. For many it is perhaps Breivik’s own fear of the latter which could offer some small solace because that is the only judgment he would view as punishment. Norwegians know that Breivik will now always be a part of their history but they will not let him become part of their identity. So, for many, today will be a moment in time – but they refuse to let it be a defining one.