Justice is just a word

This Friday, Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik hears his verdict. It will do little to console the wreckage of the living. A writer who covered the events and the court case reflects on the impossibility of justice.

Kjetil Østli
20 August 2012

Yesterday afternoon. The last report from the courtroom before it’s all over: the speech of the murderer. Calmly, with his soft voice, he says:

Everybody can agree July 22nd was a barbaric operation. On July 21st I thought: tomorrow I’ll die. What shall I die for? That’s what I’m going to talk about now...

I drift away. Can’t take any more of it. That’s enough.

Before him, a mother spoke. She talked about the longing for her daughter. The room applauded, several cried. What are they applauding? In desperation, to create meaning in the meaningless.

On Wednesday, a witness: I know why you’re here, said the man to the priest who knocked on the door on July 22, at night.

Hours earlier he had planned supper - mussels - with his wife. After work she’d chosen one of two routes home. On her way home, life was blown away; and the man said to the priest, I know why you’re here. Hours earlier, an ordinary life. Now, I know why you’re here.

What have we learnt from ten weeks in court? I really don’t know. That humans need meaning to live? As a spectator I can’t find this meaning any more, only sorrow. It’s a heavy weight that I feel, and it’s only getting worse. What was supposed to be a journey towards the final reckoning - with evil - looks like its opposite: our inability to understand the incomprehensible.

The case is built on meaninglessness so all-encompassing, justice is reduced to a mere word. And when you can’t take it in, you go into a kind of slump, breathing slows, and you stare at the floor.

What kind of justice can a legal sentence give? Because we know, after all we’ve seen and heard: nothing can make up for this. I had forgotten this until another mother came to court this week. She spoke quietly of her conversations with her son, before Anders Behring Breivik shot him dead. Should they have asked him to do something differently? Asked their son to swim? Asked him to hide somewhere else?

”It is like we’re exploded as a family. It’s so difficult to live together with all the problems everyone in the family is struggling with. We don’t measure up. The siblings can’t move on. I can’t assure them their lives will ever be good again. Nothing gives meaning or has value in the same way any more,” she said. 

These last two weeks of the court case, a wall of diagnosis has been erected around the evil. Quietly the mother tore down the wall. We’ve spoken a lot about doubt. But despair is the word. Their priest knocked on the door six days after July 22. One does hope for a miracle, she said, Håvard’s brother did.

She cries. The wall is smashed. The courtroom cries. I hear the words of Swedish singer Cornelis Vreeswijk inside me: the long and black-clad line / softly bows in tears. So what have we learnt? That nothing can be just, and that mostly it feels meaningless.

Ten weeks in court. 50 days. Norway has changed.

At first the country was mesmerized. Journalists said: ”I saw the evil in the eyes”, ”like staring into an abyss”. From court we wrote: ”A monster!”, ”he looks down”, ”he walks”, ”he drinks water” etc. Like he was from another planet.

And then we renamed evil: psychosis, Asperger’s, fascism. Ten weeks. In the end we barely glanced at the defendant in the morning. We peered into iPhones, worked, checked the weather. A kind of portrait of Norway: first innocent, unfamiliar with brutality, staring at him in shock as if he was a 3D picture soon to reveal the answer to the riddle. Then adjusting. Slightly bored. Suddenly used to having a mass murderer among us. 

Because he isn’t one of us. If he is declared criminally insane, we can lock up the right-wing extremism, together with our society that shaped him.

Ten weeks for us to cleanse away the evil. But it won’t wash away. It’s here, in this room, and people cry and cry.

That afternoon. Light footsteps on the football field. Feet strolling towards the café. Sleeping feet in a tent. Then: heavy, calm feet on the gravel. Wild legs. Naked children’s feet. Stumbling feet. Feet frozen to the ground. Then: heavy, calm steps towards them. Legs and arms sticking out from rock outcrops. Bodies shrunk to fit behind a piano, behind the little brick wall. And the steps that stop. Bodies falling, hitting the water, down the cliffs, 1-7-16. Legs, woven together into one large body, 21-29-36. Shaking. Bleeding, 42-48-53.

The mouth: ”Come out!” Mouths: ”Please, don’t shoot.” Screams. He’s empty, reloads while they wait. Shoots through hands held up in front of faces. It’s almost so you can’t believe it’s reality, said the prosecutor.

Why did it happen? The values of AUF (Labour Youth) summed up in one word: justice – freedom for all, equal opportunities, a new and more just world where you can be yourself, whatever your name, who you are, where you live, what you believe in and whom you love.

Anders Behring Breivik, in court: for the committed, activism starts with a feeling of injustice. For him, AUF’s outlook and ideas on justice was an intolerable injustice towards Norway.

I think about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). A film about a man outcast, falling. He becomes obsessed with what he considers decadence and downfall, a deeply unfair society. The hatred grows and a twisted idea develops: He will cleanse society by killing those who create the injustice. He reminds us of the defendant. But when the defendant speaks, what is intolerable is his own sense of wounded ‘justice’, undermined, ridiculed, ignored.

All this injustice might stem from an extreme sense of injustice. Where did it start? Have we made mistakes too? I don’t know. We must accept otherness, but at the same time we must not laugh at those who fear others.


Utøya. Flickr/Sigurd R. Some rights reserved.

One boy was mentioned by several Utøya witnesses. Like an ant, he managed to carry another boy who had been shot in both legs. I’ve heard him on TV, where he could only remember one thing: that he let go of his wounded burden when the defendant came. I’ve seen the boy that did the carrying in court. He sleeps quite a lot. I want to wake him up, shout: you are a great human being! It’s undeserved – those guilt feelings. But he’s asleep.

Many survivors will do fine. But for others it’ll be hell, and families will be shattered. “It’s fine”, several replied in court, but with dead eyes. I remember the girl who said, with a flat voice: “Did I know that NN (her best friend) was dead? Oh yes. I could feel that. I held her hand as he shot her.”

I remember the girl who, shot in the head, sung a children’s song, got up and saw ten dead bodies, and now says that at least she’s alive. But how will she manage?

77 spreads into thousands. 77 x 5 close x many more = a wreckage of the living.

An American database (of 60,000 people) shows how many suffer after serious incidents: 11 per cent minimal effect. 39 per cent grave effect. The rest somewhere in between. Some sleeplessness. Some concentration problems. Some angst. For the youngest: clinging. Addiction. Problems sleeping alone. Incontinence. Hyperactivity, fear of separation. They cry themselves to sleep. Drop out of school. The angst won’t leave. Becoming jumpy. Day and night: danger, danger, danger.

One of the victims asks: can you surgically remove the pictures I have in my head?

A mother in court: “She has been here [in court] often. She drags herself up the stairs, sits with her head cocked, lips clamped together, eyes shut, face twisted, everything about her is twisted, without balance.”

And the mother who broke down during the autopsy of her daughter, a scream stuck in her throat, carried out heaving by guards as a man with a bowed head walks quietly behind them.

Justice? God damn it.

An expert on post-traumatic stress disorder this week: There is one thing that’s difficult for a human being to bear: meaninglessness. The bereaved and the surviving try to create a meaning that makes it possible to move on. Even parents can find meaning in the sudden death of a child. Or that the child did something good for someone before it was taken away from them. The girl who got body parts shot off finds meaning in still being alive.

In the midst of meaninglessness, we search for meaning. But it takes time. Some never find any.

They’re alone.

Friday, last day in court. You came from nothing and shall disappear into nothing. The defendant stands up in his slightly too big suit. Arms folded over his stomach. Soft steps to a life where the future is on Wikipedia. His smile: it’s put up, it’s taken down. Mechanical, unconnected to emotions. I’ve sat behind him for a long time. When he leaves, he never looks at the bereaved or the journalists. He doesn’t dare to, I think, because something inside him understands what he has done.

The fascist salutes appear like a frightened man’s attempt to cling onto his actions. I know you despise me, but I’m invulnerable!

One who doesn’t dare look people in the eyes isn’t a monster. I feel sorry for this human. He is a tragedy. Without meaning, lost.

What is a just sentence? Some of the bereaved are indifferent, “as long as he is locked away until he dies.”

What about the rest of us? Revenge has become un-Norwegian. Turn the other cheek rather than an eye for an eye. Roses and children’s songs, not hatred. Mental hospital, not death penalty. Norway is soft.

But the criticism of the first psychology report (“psychotic, legally insane”) isn’t only due to its weaknesses, but also a lust for revenge. What? No punishment!? When he acknowledges his actions, the anger finds new paths, and is directed towards those who blame something else other than this man.

But Norway stands steadfast. If you’re ill, you shall get treatment. If there is enough doubt, there shall be no punishment. Norway is softness compressed to granite. But Friday at 2:55 pm the time for speech was over. No more newspaper stories on his three cells and one hundred proposals of marriage.

As the boy (who lost his father) told him on the island: “Go away! You have done enough.”

If the defendant is in fact controlled by his own disease, what happens if the treatment cures him? Will he go crazy from the weight of 77 murdered? Would that be fair? The punishment being his own agony? It’s loss, loss, everything is loss. For him, for them, for us. 

July 22 is our wound. The wound throbs, itches, heals, is opened. The defendant has cursed Norway, given us infinite opportunity to hurt. Debates on immigration, criticism of the police, the AUF leadership, psychiatry – it reveals a wounded people. The blood throbs against the wound. It is opened, bile seeps out.

A hope: let us wait a few seconds before we have a go at it, before we mock in debate or go angrily forward to type the online comment. Wait – and think: What am I writing now? Is my criticism fair? Or am I too scornful? Do I want to hurt because I am myself hurt? Breathe, think. Evil shall not be understood, but it shall be renounced. Breathe, think.


Impromptu Oslo flower memorial. Flickr/Dmitry Valberg. Some rights reserved.

Something I will never forget: July 23, 1 in the morning, in the white house on the island, the police say: there are no more living left. The health workers still have to double check. Nobody must be forgotten. Somebody points at emergency nurse Anette Strømsrud Hansen (29), and she remembers two things: That she doesn’t want to. And that something in her feels she has to.

They divide themselves into five teams, each health worker getting an allotted area of Utøya, with the dead scattered on it, and six people from Delta, the police counter-terrorism unit, to secure them. They pick up stacks of blankets. Then they walk into the black night, she in the middle, three black clad on each side. The police wear night goggles, but Anette fumbles. She has a torch, but isn’t allowed to turn it on. They must be utterly quiet and only communicate with hand signals. They cross a campsite. So deserted, she thinks, like a campsite where everybody has abandoned all their possessions and somehow been spirited away. The darkness is total this night, and several have told of how small mobile phones lit up and blinked in the darkness. Mum mobile. Dad mobile. Nan. Etc.

The seven are getting closer to The Love Path. One policeman stops and signals. Six officers clad in black stay still while the young woman approaches the cluster. Everything goes so slowly, she remembers, everything is quiet, even though she’s professional, she feels everything. She squats, and signals Delta she will turn on her torch. The six turn away as she lowers her cheek over the mouth of those who lie there. She touches the arm, feels the skin, checks breathing, pulse, temperature. And then, to check the pupils, she turns the torch on them to see into the eyes of the dead. One after the other, they get the strong ray of light turned on them that night.

She turns the torch off. Carefully covers the body with a blanket, and moves on.

Why do I mention this? Because it’s some kind of comfort, however poor: there lay 77 bodies. Somebody touches them, looks at them, sees all they’ve been robbed of, sees the meaninglessness in their eyes. We have seen them.

Never to be forgotten.


With kind permisson from Aftenposten. Translated from Norwegian by Magnus Nome. © Aftenposten. This work is not available to reproduce.

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