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Norway's trial, and a democratic lesson

The legal procedure in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Norwegian massacre of July 2011, is a case-study of democratic values - in particular, that democracy is not a "what" but a "how", says Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

In the aftermath of the events of 22 July 2011, many in Norway became acutely aware that something more important was at stake than the petty little things that we quarrelled about every day; namely, the respect for life and the ability to live and thrive in a community of disagreement. The trial may serve as a reminder of the fundamental importance of these values.

Speaking with the vocabulary and intonation revealing his origins in Oslo Vest, a sociolect everybody in the country recognises as the embodiment of power and success, perhaps also arrogance and contempt, the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik has spent the last week explaining his political worldview, describing in minute detail the planning and execution of his terrorist attacks, and sometimes responding to, sometimes dodging the questions from the prosecutors.

Many of the foreign commentators on the Breivik trial have expressed dismay, admiration or mere surprise at the civil, ordered, dispassionate way the proceedings in court are being conducted. Among the spectators in the courtroom are survivors from the AUF (Young Labour) summer-camp at Utøya, where Breivik killed sixty-nine and wounded dozens, and from his attack on government offices in central Oslo, where eight were killed. Bereaved parents and siblings are also present in court. They are shocked and moved, but nobody shouts. Even seasoned journalists who have covered countless dreadful murder cases over the years, and who emerge from court ashen-faced in the afternoon, are hesitant and soft-spoken in their commentaries. Quiet voices seem to predominate everywhere.

Foreign journalists are surprised. "In my country...", they might begin; in my country, there would be riots outside the courthouse. Spectators inside would heckle the defendant. Some would try to get across the barriers just to punch him. People would shout and scream.

In Oslo, there has been none of this. As many have written, the proceedings were carried out with extreme civility during the first week. The questioning from the prosecutors was polite and almost friendly, Breivik's answers calm and dispassionate, even when he has been confronted with horrible details. Few have gathered outside the courthouse, where the only besiegers have been members of the international media.

The national debate

Some of the foreign media are nonplussed by the extreme civility displayed by the Norwegian judiciary when facing this coldblooded mass murderer of children, the most terrible criminal in the history of the country. French, German, British and American commentators alike are frustrated at the apparent lack of aggression, shocked by the seeming unwillingness by the Norwegian state to deal with Breivik in a way proportional to the magnitude of the crimes he has committed. Some imply that the lack of passion among Norwegians is slightly frightening. Are they really as cold as their climate? Others express admiration.

In Norway itself, there is broad agreement about the necessity to deal with Breivik in a "dignified" way. Indeed, the word verdighet ("dignity") comes up many times every day in media and online comments on the trial. Before the trial, questions concerning what to do about Breivik formed a continuous background buzz in the country for months. Whenever open debate erupted in the newspapers, the moral high ground was invariably occupied by those who insisted on following standard procedures and doing everything according to the book (although it might, it was often mused, naturally be tempting simply to lock the terrorist up, lose the key and forget about him). There are good reasons why Norway has not chosen to do this, but instead has offered Breivik the platform he dreamed about to explain his political views, with media across the world as his audience.

This is not to say that there is no disagreement concerning the trial and its open, broadly publicised character. Some still feel that it should not be broadcast at all. Breivik's own statements are, incidentally, not broadcast at all, but are reproduced verbatim in some of the online newspapers. Yet, most of the trial can be viewed live on TV or on any computer. Not all are overly pleased with this. An opinion-poll published just before the beginning of the trial indicated that more than 60% of the population felt that he got too much attention from the media. The liberal daily Dagbladet has introduced, for the duration of the trial, a button on the masthead of its online edition. Press it, and you enter a Breivik-free zone. My suspicion is that few do. Although we all know that Breivik does not merit this massive prolonged attention, that his message is one of paranoid hatred, and that there is no doubt as to his guilt, there is a morbid fascination with the affair, coupled with a need to know as much as possible about it in order to be able to move on.

There is considerable disagreement about further issues. Indeed, the ordinary-looking 33-year-old, the perpetrator of thoroughly premeditated crimes of unspeakable atrocity, is almost like a Rorschach inkblot to the commentariat of the Norwegian public sphere - what you read into it says more about yourself than about the inkblot. Some argue that events in his childhood are bound to shed important light on the monster he became. Others find the discussion about clinical insanity crucial, especially in the light of his emotional neutrality when relating horrible details of his crimes. Yet others focus mainly on the ideology of hate which motivated the terrorist attacks and gave Breivik a sense of a moral mission as a saviour of European civilisation. Again others have an interest in the role played by online games in Breivik's recent life and his seeming lack of ability to distinguish between a computer game and real life.

The democratic vessel

Like any democratic society, Norway is perfectly capable of living with, dealing with and indeed rejoicing in these differences. A society with no overt disagreement, with no conflicting values or diversity in opinion, is not only a frightening place, but a totalitarian one. As do others who share many of his views, Breivik argued that his political outlook - namely, that (in brief) we are ruled by cultural Marxists, that politicians systematically lie to us, and that Muslims are secretly planning to take power in Europe - had been censored and marginalised. There is some truth to this charge, in that the established media rarely publicise these extreme and paranoid propositions; but on the other hand, criticism of Islam is commonplace, and the populist Progress Party, known for its tough line on immigration and Islam, has a healthy contingent in parliament.

Democracy does not recommend a particular political position. It is about form rather than content. It presupposes mutual recognition and the acceptance of divergences of opinion, of the right to be heard, of the obligation to listen to others, and of respect for common norms of decency. The calm and reasoned way in which the Norwegian judiciary, the audience in the courtroom and indeed the population at large deal with Breivik, allowing him to be heard and asking him to listen, should be viewed in this light. It does not imply that Norwegians lack passion or that anger and vengefulness are absent during the trial. What it says is that our values are fundamentally different from his.

Breivik has himself claimed that he expected to be shot by police forces at Utøya, and later, that he would be subjected to torture in order to reveal secrets. Instead, he is treated with politeness and decency. Unlike the United States after 9/11, Norway is not going to place its soul in jeopardy through brutal and passionate revenge following a terrorist attack. Indeed, after ten gruelling weeks of testimonies, questioning and intensive media coverage, the country is likely to emerge strengthened in its collective belief in democratic openness. The slogan is not "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists", but rather "it is our values against theirs".

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About the author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His latest book for Pluto Press is Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography. Other books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here.

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here


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