Norway’s traumatic moment of truth

NEWS ANALYSIS: After describing himself as a self-appointed executionist on Thursday, Anders Behring Breivik was back on the witness stand in Oslo on Friday to answer more questions about his attacks of July 22. As survivors and families of victims braced for more gruesome details, questions keep arising about why it’s necessary, as one survivor put it, “to rip open old sores again.”

Breivik’s testimony has been described as “shocking” even by the most jaded legal experts and courtroom commentators. Breivik himself was alternately described by attorneys following the case, not least those representing survivors and victims, as “evil” and “dangerous.”

He has remained mostly cool, calm and collected throughout the first week of his 10-week trial, even though there were signs of defiance and irritation on Wednesday. That gave way to cooperation and self-confidence on Thursday as he willingly described how he planned his attacks, how he trained for them and how he carried them out. He smiled and denied he was a child murderer, while parents of his victims as young as 14 shook their heads in disbelief.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) aired live coverage of Breivik's trial once again on Friday morning, until the judge ordered filming to end when proceedings began. No video or audio recording of Breivik's testimony is allowed, under a Supreme Court ruling. Breivik altered his dress on Friday for what was expected to be his most gruesome testimony yet, opting to wear a black suit with black shirt and light tie as he answered questions about the 69 murders he committed on the island of Utøya last July. At right is one of his defense attorneys, Vibeke Hein Bæra. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

So why is it necessary to put them and the rest of the nation for that matter through more trauma of the trial itself? There is no question about Breivik’s guilt. Not only has he admitted to the attacks, he’s said he would strike again if given a chance. Why give him such a platform to describe what he did in all its chilling detail, and spread the right-wing extremist ideology that he claims motivated his attacks?

Because Norwegian authorities are bound and determined to accord Breivik the same local brand of justice as any other criminal defendant in the country. The trial itself seems to be both an expression of Norwegian civility and a form of national catharsis, however painful that might be.

“It’s important to remember that this is a court case, this is his trial,” one of his defense attorneys, Vibeke Hein Bæra, told reporters at a press conference after the trial’s fourth, difficult day. She and her colleagues conceded it had been a very tough day indeed, but stressed that Breivik must, under Norwegian law, be allowed to explain and defend his deeds, and face his judgment day in accordance with that law.

His lead attorney, Geir Lippestad, has repeatedly acknowledged that his client has a sense of reality that few can understand. “He has a strong desire to explain himself,” Lippestad said, noting that neither he nor others can muzzle him. The prosecution also notes that while it’s difficult to listen to Breivik all but brag about his attacks, they have a legal responsibility to gather facts and hear his testimony along with that of anyone else who can shed light on how and why the events of July 22 could occur.

International reaction
Foreign journalists descended on Oslo to cover the trial of the young Norwegian who’s been branded as the worst single mass murderer in human history. The trial has received widespread international coverage and judging from online comments on the case, many persons outside Norway are surprised, even disgusted,that Breivik has been treated with such civility and respect in the courtroom. Some were shocked that all members of the prosecution, and not least the court-appointed psychiatrists who must evaluate Breivik’s mental state, shook hands with Breivik on the trial’s opening day.

That’s simply the custom in Norway, along with relatively prison terms and an emphasis on criminal rehabilitation, as opposed to pure punishment. That’s under some pressure now, but it’s worth noting that even during some of Breivik’s most horrific testimony about his “executions,” there were no emotional outbursts among Norwegians in the courtroom. There were some tears and lots of head-shaking, and some survivors and parents of murdered teenagers have left the courtroom on occasion, but there’s been no screaming or verbal attacks on Breivik. Breivik reportedly has received some death threats in prison, but attorneys in the case actually commented Thursday evening that they’re impressed over how the public has behaved during throughout his trial so far. Roses have even been placed in security fences around the Oslo courthouse and elsewhere around town. Psychologists and medical personnel are nonetheless standing by in the Oslo courthouse and others nationwide where proceedings are being shown via video link, should a need for them arise.

Critical mental health evaluation
The only issue for the judges in the case to decide in Brevik’s case is his sentence, and that will be based on a final evaluation of his mental health in June, when the trial finally ends. His performance in court this week has led several legal and psychiatric experts to suggest he’s sane, not insane, given his personal conduct, insight into his meticulous planning and his explanations for his crimes. One local professor and expert on terrorism called him “calm, cold-blooded, calculating, a classic terrorist … with clear political goals.” Attorney Mette Yvonne Larsen, representing dozens of survivors and victims’ families, called him “a very dangerous man” while still others believe he simply craves attention and is getting too much of it.

That may be true, but it’s part of the legal system in Norway and arguably less of a media circus than that surrounding other celebrated court cases in the US, for example. As defense attorney Bæra stressed, “this is a court case,” with all that entails. It will run until June 22, with a verdict due by July 20.

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of Breivik’s targets who survived his bullets made an interesting observation earlier this week, when she said she was ignoring his trial because he had “taken up too much of her time already.” Others feel the media is giving Breivik and his terrorist attacks far too much attention. That’s understandable, but most of us in the media have felt an obligation to cover the trial around Norway’s greatest national trauma since World War II as best we can. Our resources at this website are limited, so I confess that my attempts at coverage have come at the expense of other news from Norway as the trial got underway this week. Newsinenglish.no will continue to follow court proceedings as news from them emerges, but life goes on in Norway and we’ll now aim to revert to paying more attention to the views and news that “normal” Norwegian life generates as well.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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  • http://www.facebook.com/shelagh.cosgrove Shelagh Cosgrove

    I would like to wish all Norwegians, but especially those personally affected by Breivik’s horrendous actions last July, the strength and courage needed to see this phase of the healing process through. I have family in Norway, but beyond that, there is a huge and human tragedy here that affects us all. This trial seems to be a necessary bridge to cross, as difficult as it may be. Without it, there would be no public examination of all the facts of the case or Breivik’s own thinking, then and now. Facing the truth is the hardest thing sometimes, but if it helps at all, think of that statement in the Bible: “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/shelagh.cosgrove Shelagh Cosgrove

    This must be a very painful and difficult part of the whole process of healing after the very great tragedy in Norway last July. Our thoughts are with you, and if it’s any comfort, remember those words: For you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

  • http://twitter.com/AAHUNC Amy Healey

    This was a nice summary of the trial and the reasons for it. You are to be commended for your reporting, and Norway is to be commended for sticking to its rules of civility and commitment to the rule of law, however difficult that may be.

  • complexed

    I’m a bit suspicious about this article saying several psychiatric experts (who are not named) suggest he’s sane based on viewing his court appearances so far, and doesn’t mention anyone thinking he’s insane. And it’s as if the initial psychiatric assessment that found him psychotic, never took place.

    It does not seem technically correct to say the only thing the judges have to decide on is his sanity (though that is surely the reality). It seems the judge agreed to a trial of a legal defense of necessity, by which Breivik could technically be found not guilty and released? It seems to be a sham trial in that sense, because there was clearly no possible legal basis for a necessity defense (only Breivik may actually think he may be vindicated and released).

    As a foreigner, I love the example of civility and openess and rehabilitation that Norway shows. But as someone who has experienced an inadequate mental health system and counterproductive social attitudes to mental health in my country (England), I’m disappointed to see more of the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1798528473 Anastasia Hobbet

    I’m glad to see your extended coverage. There’s too much in the Norwegian media for me to digest, being such a slow reader på norsk. In a sense, it is hard to understand why Norway should try this man who has admitted to causing every death on that awful day. But the trial may be the only chance for Norwegians, especially those directly affected by the massacre, to judge Breivik’s sanity for themselves. If I were among them, I’d want to look him in the eyes and try to fathom the man who judged my child’s life not worth living.