The banality of an attention-seeking killer

I have been following the opening of the court case against the mass murderer from Utøya in Norway. I really should not – I have better things to do – but it is hard not to, it strikes very close to home. I don’t know anyone directly involved (though, reportedly, 25% of Norwegians do), but the dry, factual and extremely professional reading by the prosecutor of the names of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths and injuries gets to me: Norway is a very small society, I know many people with the same last names, my daughter knows people directly involved, and the whole thing becomes very real. The court has seen films of people dying and a mobile phone call from a victim, where you could hear 10 shots being fired just outside the toilet door where she was hiding, but these are not included in the broadcast.

A psychiatrist describes the defendant as a psychopath with total lack of empathy – he cries when seeing his own Youtube propaganda video but tries to hide a smile during the description of his rampage. The sheer numbers and the cold-bloodedness of the defendant both then and now is deeply offensive. There have been two psychiatric evaluations of him, the first concluding that he was not responsible for his own actions, the second that he was. I think the second evaluation – in the first, the psychiatrists had little knowledge of right-wing environments and saw all his infantile anti-islam fantasies as a sign of madness in itself – will be the one standing.

Norway does not have life sentences or the death penalty. A “life sentence” is typically 20 years, for certain crimes (this one included) a 30 year sentence can be imposed. However, after a 30 year sentence, the prisoner has to be released – in fact, given good behavior in prison, a person has to be released before time. A second possibility is to sentence him to 20 years, followed by 10 years of “forvaring”, i.e. a continued prison sentence because the person may be a danger to society. This can be extended indefinitely, but is subject to a psychiatric review every 5 years. I think that is what will happen. It is probable that the Norwegian laws will be rewritten to include a life sentence for extremely serious crimes, but laws cannot be given retroactive effect.

I am deeply impressed by the professionalism shown by everyone involved in this – prosecutors, defenders and commentators alike. The main defending attorney, Geir Lippestad, took the job very reluctantly and holds a very straight face, but you can tell that he is disgusted by his client but determined to give him a defense as good as can be done – and to reign in his political tirades as much as possible. The press has been fairly careful in not showing too many details about the victims, but the sheer volume is a problem in itself – and the fact that the defendant gets the attention he seems to crave (he seems to have done this more to get attention than for any other results, political and quasi-religious justifications aside) – is rather revolting.

Oh well. Justice will be done, but it is at a very high price for the victims and their families and friends. The court case is held in a very dignified form, with the exception of the defendant, who obviously delights in the attention and will start his explanation tomorrow.

To me, he is not worthy of this court case and this country.

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2 thoughts on “The banality of an attention-seeking killer

  1. Vaughan Merlyn

    Espen, we appreciate your perspective and taking the time to share it. Whether legally sane or not, the world seems to be increasingly populated by maniacs eager to kill innocent victims to make some kind of personal or political statement.

    It will be interesting to see how the Norwegian society and legal system deal with this trial and with the larger issues Breivik was trying to raise. And certainly welcome that we can see those through your sane and eloquent eyes!

  2. Espen Post author

    Vaughan,
    thanks. This case is so disturbing, it is just plain painful to anyone inclined to analyze it. I have long been a proponent of increased immigration to Norway – we need the best brains we can get – and the primitive nature of the ideology of this guy runs counter to every iota of analytic capability I have and every fiber of emotion of my body. A primitive part of me wants to hit him over the head with a tire iron, the analytic part of me tells me that the court case and the rather dignified way it is conducted is the best recourse. I am rather proud of my country and the response to this particular form of terror – it show a reserve and a determination not to have its values corrupted by events, no matter how populistic, that is quite admirable. At the same time, I am extremely happy that the events where not caused by some Islamic or otherwise foreign terror group – that would trigger responses that are much less charitable.
    May we have the ability to maintain our cool and our focus on the important issues when the next case comes up, perhaps not so clear cut.

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