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Why the Norway Shooter May End Up Serving A Life Sentence

Anders Breivik isn't going to jail for 21 years, but he won't be executed either. His countrymen tell us they prefer a less "medieval" punishment.

The body count in the wake of Friday's killing spree in Norway is now at 76, fewer than the 93 deaths that were initially reported but still a ghastly total. In a country that boasted only 0.6 intentional homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2009 (compared to America's 5 per 100,000), this is easily the most devastating killing it has faced since World War II. The only suspect in police custody, Anders Behring Breivik, has admitted to the attacks but also pleaded not guilty, saying he was not criminally responsible.

"According to what the court understands," said Kim Heger, the Oslo district court judge who heard Breivik’s case, "the accused believes that he needed to carry out these acts to save Norway and Western Europe from, among other things, cultural Marxism and a Muslim takeover." Breivik, who has been ordered into a month-long, pretrial isolation, has been charged with Acts of Terror.

In the United States, he would be facing the death penalty for his alleged crimes. In Norway, according to many U.S. reports, the law is so lax that the maximum prison sentence Breivik will serve is 21 years. Much to many Norwegians’ frustration, however, those reports are totally inaccurate. The maximum sentence for most crimes in Norway—save for killing a member of the royal family, attempted coups, and war crimes, which carry 30-year sentences—is indeed 21 years, but that is not the only sentencing option at Norway’s disposal.

Under Norwegian law, "there are three kinds of punishments that might be relevant to Mr. Breivik," Håvard Saude, a former barrister turned government adviser, writes to me from Norway, "jail, containment, and forced mental treatment." People forced into mental treatment can be there indefinitely if need be, and Breivik's lawyer says he believes Breivik is insane. Nevertheless, Breivik hasn't yet pleaded insanity, and the methodical nature of his crimes doesn't immediately speak to a need for psychiatric care. Instead, for people like Breivik, there is forvaring, containment.

"In order to get [containment], you must be regarded as too dangerous to be let out into the community,"says Saude. "This is a sentence initially given for 20 years, but after 20 years there will be a new court case in which the sentence can be prolonged for five more years at the time until [the criminal] is no longer regarded as dangerous to society—in Breivik’s case, that’s dead."

Despite the fact that he maintains he’s not guilty, Breivik seems to know he’ll get containment, as he reportedly told Norwegian authorities that he expects to never get out of prison. To the Norwegians I talked to, that seems like justice.

"I'm sure he will never be released from prison," says Vegar Svanemyr in an email. Svanemyr is from Oslo but moved to the United States to study Zen Buddhism. Now in Salt Lake City, he says he thinks keeping Breivik locked up and in seclusion forever is fair, though he bristles a little at too much isolation. Breivik’s current month-long stint in the hole "seems too harsh as an extended sentence to me,"he says.

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is the owner of Pink & Yellow Media, a design company based in British Columbia. Like his fellow expat, Svanemyr, he says he thinks containment would be the best option for Breivik: "He should sit in jail … and serve as proof that even though he committed the worst crime against the country since World War II, and even though he treated his victims inhumanely, we will still treat him as a human being." Rand-Hendriksen then adds, "I pity him for his lack of understanding of the human condition."

Although each had varying opinions about Norway’s justice system, all the Norwegians with whom I spoke agreed that their country’s handling of Breivik will be superior to how a mass-murderer would be treated in America. That is, none of them said Breivik should be executed, a popular sentiment amongst American blog commenters. "I am a strong believer in the Norwegian legal and penal system," says Rand Hendriksen. "The system focuses on rehabilitation and restoration, not just punishment and retaliation. Many a murderer has served his or her sentence and is now free to roam and contribute to society."

"America’s justice system is painfully broken,"adds Svanemyr. "The lengthy prison sentences received here … only serve capital interests and a medieval sense of revenge, not a modern, just, and caring society. The focus always needs to be on rehabilitating those who can function normally again in society, and containing the very few who can't."

To Saude, the ex-barrister, the fact that Breivik is Norwegian will force judges to place the blame where it truly belongs. "Everybody here is so damn happy that this was a Norwegian," he says. "We cannot blame anyone else for it. The hawks are silenced and have no argument for going out to kill someone on the other side of the face of the world, or attacking some poor Middle Easterner in the subway in Oslo."

photo: Jon-Are Berg-Jacobsen/AFP

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