Controversy surrounds the Norwegian people’s response to the death of 76 of their own at the hands of homegrown terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Many claim that Breivik’s terrible crimes far outweigh the country’s lenient penalties, and that Norway needs to reinstate the death penalty. I, however, see their response as a strong-willed resolve to maintain their unique culture.
Currently, Breivik faces a maximum 21-year sentence for the killings, with the possibility of a 30-year sentence if he’s charged with crimes against humanity – a sentence that could be increased after the 30 years if he’s deemed to still be a danger to society. Norway does not practice capital punishment, as the country discontinued its use for civilian crimes in 1902 and abolished it completely in 1988 (after briefly utilizing it to punish Nazi collaborators).
However, much of the negativity surrounding Breivik’s possible punishments – and their apparent lack of severity – seems to be coming from outside the country’s borders, largely through Facebook and comparisons to the American justice system. On the contrary, Norwegians are holding true to their culture and their beliefs.
The Aftenposten, a Norwegian daily newspaper, recently reported that 71,000 of one group’s 97,000 members voted against the reinstitution of capital punishment, according to USA Today. The Aftenposten political editor, Harald Stanghelle, helped contextualize the sentiment in stating that, “It’s important then to be aware that we are a just society. He [Breivik] wanted to crush that just society, while we others want to preserve it.” A similar sentiment was stated by Trond Bentestuen, a bank group vice president and former Norwegian army officer, when he said that, “The most important thing is to make sure this lunatic is not able to change our values and our society in a negative way.”
For now, it seems as if Breivik’s actions are accomplishing the opposite. According to one Los Angeles Times article, memberships among both liberal and conservative youth parties have surged since the attacks. Similarly, a New York Times article reported that 94 percent of respondents in a poll by the research firm InFact felt that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, of that AUF party whose youth camp was attacked on Utoya island, has handled things well in the aftermath of the violence.
So what does this mean for the Norwegian justice system and its policies? Are their punishments too lenient for such a terrible crime? Perhaps. Capital punishment does seem fair under these circumstances – he’s confessed and the evidence is stacked against him. But that’s beside the point. He’s not an American and our justice system doesn’t apply. Moreover, it’s useless to try to judge their country’s system according to ours.
What is important, however, is to recognize how their response is both difficult and brave. It’s easy to respond with anger and revenge; it’s easy to compromise your values, to want to kill him and be done with it. What’s not easy is to show restraint in such a time of pain; it’s not easy to respond with the sort of calculated sensibility and trust in their system that Norwegians have done. Their response, although much different than how Americans would respond, is one that I respect even though I may disagree with their decisions. It’s a response that the world could learn from, and that illustrates the many shades of gray.