Norway - one year after: an open wound

Populist right-wing politicians expressing extreme views on immigration, Islam and Muslims, have in general been confronted in the mediated public spheres to a much greater extent than before 22/7, as have extreme-right wingers. But how much else has moved on?

Sindre Bangstad
20 July 2012

One year has passed since Anders Behring Breivik, a white thirty-two year old Norwegian from Oslo West, set off a bomb at Government Headquarters in Oslo, Norway, killing eight people, and proceeded to the annual summer camp of the governing Labour Party Youth Organization AUF at Utøya where he massacred sixty-nine party youth activists, mostly in their teens.

In the course of the 22/7 trial at Oslo Magistrate’s Court’s Hall no. 250, which opened on April 16 2012 and ended on June 22, we have heard much more about the perpetrator’s mental state than about his victims, and more about various forms of psychopathology than about extreme right-wing ideology. This was, as it happens, unavoidable given that the two appointed teams of psychiatric assessors came to widely divergent conclusions regarding the mass murderer’s mental state on and after 22/7 2011. But ahead of the verdict in by far the most expensive trial in Norwegian history, this raises the question as to whether the trial can offer any form of closure for the survivors and the bereaved. Surveys indicate that an overwhelming number of people think that the perpetrator should be declared mentally sane, and sentenced to imprisonment rather than mental hospitalisation.


Demotix/R. Byhre. Norwegian flag in Breiavannet. The inscription reads "Our thoughts go out to the stricken at Utøya and the Oslo bombings". All rights reserved.

Sane or insane?

When the 22/7 trial started in a rebuilt Oslo Magistrate’s Court on April 16 this year, Norway had already seen months of intense debate over the first psychiatric assessment by Torgeir Husby and Synne Sørheim, which in November 2011 concluded that the mass murderer of 22/7, Anders Behring Breivik was not criminally liable for his actions under the General Penal Code § 44 (introduced 1929, last revised in 2001) due to psychosis and paranoid schizophrenia. Unlike every other country in the western world, in Norway psychiatric assessors can pre-empt the conclusion of any trial in which such assessments are requested by the police through a finding of psychosis and hence criminal insanity. Their work and their conclusions are very rarely contested by the courts, the prosecutors or the defense lawyers.

Another peculiarity of the Norwegian legal system is that a state of psychosis in the course of the perpetration of criminal acts need not be proven beyond any reasonable doubt by the psychiatric assessors. Husby and Sørheim, a close professional team known before the 22/7 case for arriving at a larger percentage of paranoid schizophrenia court assessments than their colleagues, would in their testimonies to the court in June 2012 declare that they had only worked together on fifteen psychiatric assessments for Norwegian courts. The real figure – as revealed by Norwegian media the day after their testimony – was fifty. The 22/7 police investigation was, in fact, marred by media leaks from the very word go.  We know that the office of Sigurd Klomsæt, a lawyer representing one survivor from Utøya was behind a number of these leaks, but suspicions still abound about media leaks stemming from the Oslo Police Headquarters itself. It is doubtful whether Oslo Magistrate’s Court would in January 2012 have made Norwegian legal history by demanding a second psychiatric assessment of the 22/7 mass murderer were it not for these media leaks.

Once the first psychiatric assessment entered the public domain through publication in the Norwegian media, an unprecedented barrage of professional criticisms from very senior Norwegian and Scandinavian psychiatrists emerged in response. The first psychiatric team had concluded that the mass murderer was a paranoid schizophrenic who had suffered a ‘complete breakdown’ of social and psychological functioning in 2006, the year in which he moved in with his elderly mother into her small apartment at Skøyen in Oslo West. Yet this ‘complete breakdown’, which according to functional tests performed by Husby and Sørheim left him in a state in which most mental patients are barely able to tie their shoelaces, let alone get out of bed in the morning, had apparently not prevented him from planning and executing what he himself would describe to the court as ‘the most spectacular terrorist attack in Norwegian history.’

Husby and Sørheim’s 234 page report had disregarded the 1516 pages cut-and-paste tract that the mass murderer sent to close to a thousand contacts in the hours before he initiated the terror attacks. They described the peculiar terminology of the extreme right-wing and Islamophobic websites Anders Behring Breivik had related intensively to in the years and months leading up to 22/7 as the product of the mass murderer’s own disturbed mind (‘neologisms’), and they characterized his quite plausible fear of being discovered by Norwegian police intelligence agencies in the years and months preceding the 22/7 attacks as expressions of ‘paranoia’.

The medical doctor who had first examined Behring Breivik after his transfer to a high-security section of Ila Prison in Oslo in late July 2011 found no evidence whatsoever of psychosis; nor did a team of external psychiatric experts tasked with following the mass murderer in the following months. But by far the most damaging report came from Randi Rosenqvist, the most senior of Norwegian court psychiatrists, responsible for Norway's standard text book in the field. As the psychiatrist in residence at Ila Prison, she had several consultations with the mass murderer in the course of the autumn of 2011, but was unable to find any evidence of psychosis or schizophrenia.

A second psychiatric assessment

In the Norwegian legal context, it actually takes considerable courage to do what Wenche Arntzen of the Oslo Magistrate’s Court did in January 2012 in ordering the appointment of a a second team of psychiatric assessors, namely to ignore the strongly voiced opinions of both Attorney-General Tor-Aksel Busch as well as the state attorneys in charge of the 22/7 trial, Inga Bejer Engh and Svein Holden, to the effect that there was no need for any further assessments of the mass murderer’s mental health after the first psychiatric assessment. In the closing arguments of the two state attorneys, it would become clear that this opinion was still strongly held on the part of the state; it remains to be seen during sentencing on 24/8 2012 whether the court shares that opinion.

The second psychiatric assessment, headed by Agnar Aspaas and Terje Tørrisen concluded after a team of 18 mental health experts had followed the mass murderer’s routine in prison day out and day in for three weeks, and the psychiatrists themselves had interviewed the mass murderer in prison, that though he had serious mental problems, he was not psychotic, and hence he was criminally liable for his actions on 22/7. In court, Husby and Sørheim lashed out at their critics among Norwegian psychiatrists, and stuck adamantly to their diagnostic conclusions. The crux of the matter, they argued, was that Behring Breivik was delusional in feeling entitled to decide upon life and death, and believing himself to be a ‘commander’ of an organization (the Knights Templar) proof of whose existence the Norwegian police had been unable to find during their investigations into 22/7. It is not exactly unusual for mass murderers to feel that they have the right to decide upon their victims’ lives or deaths, but then again, as Husby and Sørheim’s critics would be told over and over again, they had in most cases not observed or conversed with the mass murderer.

An unprecedented trial    

The first few weeks of the trial was a public spectacle the like of which Norway has never seen, and will hopefully never have to see again. The mass murderer, who according to sections of his cut-and-paste tract conceived of his trial as another extreme right-wing marketing opportunity, was permitted by the court to present a rambling ideological statement concerning the motives of his attacks on the second day of the trial. UK legal experts noted that such theatrics would very likely not be accepted in British courts. His narcissistic inclinations were no secret to those of us who have read his tract. He must have taken a certain pleasure in the fact that it was in this first week of the trial, when he himself was at the centre of the court’s attention, that international media attention was at its most intense.

Norwegian academics with some competence on certain aspects of the trial would get any number of calls from Norwegian newspaper reporters in search of on the spot analyses of every nod and wink from the mass murderer in court. Once the initial media feeding frenzy had abated, however, Norwegian media consumers were left with the Norwegian media’s own ‘talking heads’ in the form of prominent media editors and experienced court reporters interviewing each other incessantly on various media platforms. Most of all, these experts were concerned with detailed analyses of the mass murderer’s facial expressions, and sharing their expectations as to whether the mass murderer would express any sense of remorse in court. And of course, he did not.  For racist and fascist murderers who conceive of themselves as ‘saviours’ of the ‘Nordic races’ and ‘the nation’ have through history not been known for showing any remorse. The expression thereof that the mass murderer was able to offer, was limited to a meaningless apology to the relatives of casual passers-by killed in the bomb attack on Government Headquarters.  In general, though, Norwegian media, prevented from transmitting his testimony by a court order ahead of the trial (to the usual cries of ‘censorship’ and ‘gagging’ from Norwegian liberal free speech absolutists), were far more responsible in their coverage of the trial than many international media outlets with no requirement to spare their audiences from the most brutal details of the trial.

No news  

For those who had familiarised themselves with the mass murderer’s life world through reading his tract and various web postings, the trial itself would not offer much in the way of startling revelations. We learned that Behring Breivik considers Muslims to be ‘animals’ and that he found the actions of Serb genocidaires in Bosnia in the 1990s ‘inspiring’.

Where the mass murderer had feigned disapproval of Norwegian and European neo-Nazis in his tract, the trial provided a clearer endorsement of a long line of European neo-Nazis; from the accused Swedish serial killer of immigrants in Malmoe, Peter Mangs, to the German cell of neo-Nazis who killed eight Turks, a Greek and a police officer in Germany from 2000 to 2008.

In court, the mass murderer reminisced about violent fantasies involving beheading Labour Party politicians at Utøya and posting their executions on YouTube, fantasies that arguably resemble al-Qaida rather than the Crusades. The most chilling part of the trial was the mass murderer’s recounting of his killing spree at Utøya, in which he shot teenagers, frozen stiff from fear, in the head at close range; teenagers covering their faces from bullets with their bare hands; and children begging for their lives. Anders Behring Breivik is and will forever remain a child murderer; yet his court testimony revealed that he considered that term so stigmatizing that he had to continue to insist that the children he had killed were ‘indoctrinated’ party cadres comparable to ‘Hitler Youth.’ This was a line he seems to have picked up from the ever-so-charming Glenn Beck (formerly of Fox News), who like Behring Breivik seems to conceive of anyone left of the Tea Party as, well, ‘left-wing fascists.’ Among those who distanced themselves from the mass killing of innocent children for purportedly political purposes a la Behring Breivik was – interestingly enough – al-Qaida.

In court, Behring Breivik expressed opprobrium at being referred to as a racist and a fascist, which are by no means misnomers in this case, as the expert witnesses for the defense, the Norwegian historian Dr Terje Emberland and the Swedish professor of religious science Prof Mattias Gardell would all attest to in court. His boundless capacity for narcissistic self-pity was on show too: had he not, he earnestly asked the court, sacrificed family and friends on 22/7?

In the course of the trial, Norwegians would learn relatively little about the mass murderer’s personal background. Anders Behring Breivik made it perfectly clear that he considered this out of bounds and of little relevance ( though he reveals the most sordid and troublesome details about the personal lives of his close relatives and friends in his tract ); but the court was in fact prevented from taking valuable information on this into account.  The child psychologist who observed and assessed him as a child (and recommended that he be transferred to foster care), was refused permission to testify in court by his mother.  This was regrettable, as the testimony of the mother to the effect that her son had become ‘mad’ was absolutely central to the report of the first team of psychiatric assessors, Husby and Sørheim.

Day in day out, survivors and the bereaved would sit silent and dignified in court, watching the proceedings and breaking down in quiet sobs from time to time. It was as if by sheer willpower they succeeded in demonstrating to the mass murderer, the court, and to the Norwegian public in general, who possessed the sovereign claim to humanity in this case. There was only one eruption of the hatred which many survivors and bereaved, as well as Norwegians in general must and will continue to feel for Anders Behring Breivik on account of his vile and monstrous acts. That would come in the form of a shoe-throwing elderly brother of a 16-year old boy murdered at Utøya, an Iraqi Kurd by the name of Hayder Mustafa Qasim (20) who had travelled from Iraq to Oslo and Norway to express his hatred and contempt for the mass murderer. “You killed my brother! Go to hell! Go to hell!” he shouted to Behring Breivik.  As the man was led out of the court by security officers, his shoe having missed the mass murderer but hit one of his defense lawyers, he was applauded by people on the public stand.

A lack of reckoning

Anders Behring Breivik’s defense team, prior to the trial, had made it clear that they wanted to call a number of bloggers and activists who happened to share parts of Behring Breivik’s worldview, and the ‘Eurabia’- ideology in particular, to the witness stand.

Most central among these witnesses would have been perhaps Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen. Known as ‘Fjordman’, he was Behring Breivik’s main ideological inspiration, whose essays are cited in extenso no less than thirty-nine times in the mass murderer’s tract. And there was Bruce Bawer, a popular author in the ‘Eurabia’-genre, cited twenty-two times in the tract who in a pamphlet titled The New Quislings published at a small US imprint in early 2012 would directly incite people to violence against any number of Norwegian academics and politicians on account of their supposed ‘treason’ by referring to these as ‘quislings’. Also called by the defence was Hans Rustad of the mass-murderer’s favourite Norwegian right-wing website, and Walid al-Kubaisi, author and documentary film-maker in the ‘Eurabia’-genre cited three times in the tract. In Bawer’s case, it surely takes a contorted logic to identify Norwegian social democrats - exactly those who along with Norwegian Communists opposed Vidkun Quisling’s regime under the German Nazi Occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945, and often paid with their lives for doing so - with the name of Quisling. Bawer’s venting of fury over the fact that a mass murderer cites him and his book as a significant source of inspiration is perhaps understandable. Less understandable is the fact that in his pamphlet, he lifts two completely fabricated claims straight off the pages of the same mass murderer’s tract, namely the claim that ‘hundreds of Norwegian teenagers’ had been killed by Muslims over the years and the equally bizarre and undocumented claim that the radical left and anarchist organisation Blitz are the ‘storm troops’ of the Norwegian Labour Party. Bawer, who before 22/7, and by virtue of his close association with the think-thank Human Right’s Service (HRS), was on the reading lists of some of the most prominent MPs from the PP, has now officially fallen from the PP’s graces.

But those who had hoped that the trial would also provide some sort of reckoning with the Norwegian and Norwegian-based Islamophobic ideologues who had inspired the mass murderer would be disappointed. From his base outside Norway, ‘Fjordman’, otherwise in the year after 22/7 much given to defending his repeated incitement to violence against Muslims and ‘multiculturalists’ in Norway and Europe on the usual extreme right-wing blogs that he has published on since 2005 as well as in mainstream Norwegian news media which have now provided him with unprecedented access, made it clear that he refused to testify. As did longstanding friends Bawer and al-Kubaisi. One of the many sideshows of the 22/7 case in mainstream Norwegian media has been the extraordinary amount of attention extreme right-wing outfits such as the Norwegian Defence League (NDL) and the Stop the Islamisation of Norway (SIAN) have been accorded. Consisting mainly of poorly educated and marginalised angry white men of varying ages whose main pre-occupation is a viscerally uncivil dislike of Muslims, these groups have never been able to muster more than thirty odd demonstrators on the streets of any Norwegian city. But they provide a very useful foil for the far more influential and strategically-minded Islamophobes in expensive suits with university degrees.

Shifting public conceptions

Norwegian surveys indicate that the Norwegian mass murderer and those who share his existential fear of Muslims have had a harder time of it after 22/7. The percentage of people expressing positive views of immigrants and minorities in Norway has risen modestly, but significantly in the aftermath. An IPSO-MMI survey from 2012 indicates that those who have regular contact with immigrants and people of minority background also have more positive views of them. Populist right-wing politicians expressing extreme views on immigration, Islam and Muslims, have in general been confronted in the mediated public spheres to a much greater extent than before 22/7, as have extreme-right wingers.  Adopting a well-tested strategy of victimhood, many of these now declare themselves as suffering from no less than ‘political persecution’ by the ‘politically correct elite’ as a result of their views now no longer passing uncontested. Echoes here, of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ludicrous claim upon receiving the Axel Springer Prize in Berlin earlier this year, to the effect that ‘censorship’ was the ‘real’ impetus for 22/7.

Facing an increasingly multicultural future, Norway still has a long way to go. In a recent report from the research institute NOVA, 50 per cent of young people in Oslo of minority background, but born and raised in Norway, report that they do not feel ‘Norwegian’ on account of their background. In recent weeks, a significant number of Norwegians have geared up to the 22/7 commemorations by spouting the vilest abuse and issuing various death threats against the Roma in Norway on various social media.

Furthermore, what Prof Teuns van Dijk in 1992 referred to as ‘denials of racism’ in its various forms remain widespread in Norwegian society – not the least among liberal and intellectual elites who live lives for the most part shielded from what many minority individuals experience in Norway.

Those following newspaper discussion threads in mainstream Norwegian newspapers in the course of the 22/7 trial will at times have had reason to think that extreme right-wing Islamophobes are omnipresent in Norway, even if this is seldom more than the optical illusion that such people try to create by treating the web as a ‘battlefield’ ( and yes, you will no doubt find some exemplars of the species in the commentary field after this essay ).

It was perhaps not entirely co-incidental that the only witness among the AUF survivors from Utøya who received death threats ahead of his testimony at Oslo’s Magistrate’s Court was a 20-year old Norwegian of Muslim background. But the survey data from after 22/7 seems to indicate that Norwegians are slowly, but surely moving towards more pragmatic and inclusive attitudes toward immigrants and minorities. More Norwegians than before 22/7 seem to accept as a given that Norway as a multicultural society with a permanent presence of a Muslim minority is here to stay, and more Norwegians seem to be favourably disposed towards pragmatic measures of incorporation, like the ones described by Jonathan Laurence in his seminal Emancipating Europe’s Muslims.  

The fact that the Norwegian right-wing (whether populist or conservative) has risen in the polls since the municipal elections of September 2011, appears to have more to do with popular exhaustion with the governing technocratic centre-left alliance than with any other issue. Yet it remains a fact that the nascent alliance between the Conservative Party (CP) and the Progress Party (PP) which according to the polls look set to gain power in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2013, will have the mandate of voters who according to a number of surveys stand out for their negative views of immigrants and minorities. According to a 2012 survey by the Holocaust Centre in Oslo, the PP and the CP have the voters with the most negative views of Muslims, Jews and Roma in Norway. So much for the right-wing canard that it is among Norwegian social democrats critical of the Israeli occupation of and settlement expansion in Palestinian territories that anti-Semitism is the main problem. It is unlikely that the PP, whose electoral platform has had stronger restrictions on immigration in general, and Muslim immigration in particular as a central theme for a number of years, will agree to form part of a government in which its views on immigration and integration are simply set aside.

The internal evaluations of both the Norwegian Police and the Police Intelligence Services (PST) have by and large absolved Norwegian police and intelligence services for any failings before and on 22/7 2011. Norwegians will have to wait for the report of the 22/7 Commission for an independent assessment of this issue. The Norwegian government has already indicated that it will appoint a commission tasked with assessing all aspects of court psychiatry in Norway after the conclusion of the 22/7 trial.

The challenge of popular legitimacy          

On the last day in court, a national representative survey indicated that 74 per cent of Norwegians surveyed considered that the mass murderer should be sentenced to imprisonment, and only 10 per cent to mental hospitalization. No society concerned with the rule of law should consider letting popular will decide the outcome of criminal trials, and certainly not in cases of this order and magnitude. Yet the experience of societies which have in the recent past seen violence on a far greater scale than Norway ever has, or ever will, offers us some instructive lessons with regard to the problems entailed in legal processes lacking in popular legitimacy.

In his ethnographic account of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa from 1994 to 1998 – The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa from 2001, the legal anthropologist Richard A. Wilson, demonstrates how the concepts of restorative justice on which the TRC based its reckoning with the violence under apartheid in South Africa stood at odds with popular conceptions of retributive justice far more common and legitimate in the eyes of ordinary South Africans. Wilson’s account of this discrepancy between conceptions of justice in its time provided me, as a young social anthropologist embarking on research on the everyday lives of ‘coloured’ Muslims in townships and informal settlements in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa, with important clues as to why the people I happened to live and work with were generally so scathing about the TRC. They were not alone in this: the TRC was eventually much more highly regarded by people outside South Africa than by South Africans themselves.

In the Norwegian context, the discrepancy is not, as it happens, one between restorative and retributive justice. In the context of the 22/7 trial, neither option is seriously entertained by anyone - at least publicly. The discrepancy with which Norwegians will have to live in the years to come, is simply one between those who regard Anders Behring Breivik as a criminal fit to be held responsible for his actions on 22/7 2011, and those who regard him as a mentally ill person. Though not identical with this, the discrepancy also maps on to a moral-philosophical conception in which human evil exists, and one in which acts of evil are simply articulations of mental illness. In the latter case, especially so, if these acts are perpetrated by white Norwegians. Rendering 22/7 as mere articulations of mental illness will provide those who happen to share parts of Behring Breivik’s world-view with an all too-facile means of distancing. It has become part of the rhetorical repertoire of extreme as well as populist right-wingers in Norway to declare the Norwegian mass murderer to be ‘mad.’ In the court testimony of Husby and Sørheim, perhaps the most troubling part related to Husby’s reference to ‘Fjordman’ having declared Behring Breivik to be ‘mad’, as if web postings from an extreme right-wing and Islamophobic ideologue were in themselves supporting evidence for their own diagnostic conclusions. Meanwhile, work by distinguished academic scholars on political paranoia, such as Profs Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post’s Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred from 1997 suggests that paranoia is the most politically inflected of psychopathologies.

Anders Behring Breivik’s ideas are by and large not his own, and there have so far not been any indications that he is mentally or intellectually unable to distinguish between what other people consider right and wrong, good and evil. During his trial he would describe 22/7 as ‘barbaric acts’ designed to prevent greater evil in the future (i. e. in the form of Islamic rule in Norway), and outlined in detail how he had undertaken mental training in order to ‘desentisize’ himself, so as to be able to carry them out.

What the future holds  

Should Anders Behring Breivik be declared to have been psychotic and not criminally liable for his actions on 22/7 by the Oslo Magistrate’s Court on August 24 2012, Norwegians will face the certain prospect of an immediate appeal and a re-trial lasting months, which will provide the Norwegian mass murderer with ample new propaganda opportunities. Should the court’s verdict of criminal insanity be upheld by higher courts, the Norwegian mass murderer will formally have the opportunity to demand his immediate release every year for the foreseeable future, and to correspond much more freely with his small, but not insignificant international fan-club among extreme right-wingers in Europe and the USA.

Faced with another self-righteous extreme tirade from the man who had murdered their children and their friends on the last day in court, survivors and the bereaved walked out of court in a demonstration of their contempt for Behring Breivik. Many of them will - like me - surely hope that Norway and Norwegians will never again have to listen to him and his monstrous ideas. There is and can be no other way forward for Norway and Norwegians than the rule of law, so forcefully defended by the survivors and the bereaved in the course of the trial. But for some of the survivors and the bereaved, who have been to hell and back, and continue to live in the shadow of excruciating daily physical and mental pain as a result of what a man did on 22/7 2011 who still considers himself a ‘saviour’ and a ‘hero’, that may in the end prove to be a very high price to pay for the rule of law.

But regardless of the outcome of the trial – this much is clear: the now thirty-three year old Anders Behring Breivik has already lost the battle to shape the future of multicultural Norway. And we will say this again and again: history does not – and never will - absolve anyone for human evil of the kind perpetrated against innocent children, women and men in Norway on 22/7 2011.                                       

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