August 24, 2012 | World Affairs Journal

Mocking Justice in Norway: The Breivik Trial Targets Contrarian Intellectuals

“Wow.” This is the only word Tonje Brenna heard Anders Behring Breivik utter as he methodically killed sixty-nine of her fellow Norwegian Labor Party activists on the island of Utoya last summer. Brenna, the twenty-four-year-old secretary general of the Labor Party’s Youth League, sat remarkably composed as she recalled every grisly detail of the massacre, which began around 5 p.m. on July 22nd. Ninety minutes before Breivik began his shooting rampage on the island, he had detonated a massive car in central Oslo’s government district. That blast killed eight people, ultimately bringing the day’s death count to seventy-seven.


It is a quiet day in May and I am watching Breivik’s trial at the Oslo District Court, just blocks away from where the blast took place. As the courtroom itself is filled to capacity with relatives of the victims, a room has been set aside for the media, along with simultaneous English translation of the proceedings. Several other foreign journalists sit quietly as we watch the trial on a giant television screen. Family and friends of the victims mill about the premises, some of them wearing stickers that say, “Please, no interviews.” This being Norway, no one disrespects the politely offered admonition.

The massacre last July was undoubtedly the most traumatic event to shake Norway since World War II, and this Scandinavian country of some five million people has been riveted by the trial’s daily developments. What garnered the most headlines the day I attended the trial was Brenna’s revelation of what she heard Breivik say while he went about his killing spree. Asked by Breivik’s lawyer how she knew, amid all the chaos on Utoya, that it was Breivik who had shouted, “Wow,” Brenna had a well-prepared answer. “It was a joyous outburst that was repeated several times,” she calmly replied. “And I felt, given the situation, no one else had reason to express it.”


Screaming with pleasure as he executed dozens of teenage political activists for what he considered their complicity in surrendering Norway to “multicultural hell” is not the only evidence of Breivik’s insanity. That’s also apparent in the fifteen-hundred-page document he e-mailed to the media shortly following the Oslo explosion, “2083: A European Declaration of Independence.” In the heavily plagiarized, rambling tract, Breivik cites the Benes Decrees—the postwar Czechoslovak laws mandating the forced expulsion of ethnic Germans—as a possible model for dealing with Europe’s growing Muslim population. Breivik copied and pasted whole pages from the “Unabomber Manifesto” into his own treatise. The first chapter of his “Declaration of Independence” is a copy of Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology, a 2004 pamphlet published by the far-right American Free Congress Foundation. In his screed, and subsequently during his trial, Breivik claimed to be a member of a secret, underground “international Christian military order,” which he called the “Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici.” Also known as the Knights Templar, this “international Christian military order” ceased to function in the early fourteenth century. Breivik’s membership in it exists only in his head.

Last November, two court-appointed psychiatrists declared Breivik a paranoid schizophrenic. After conducting thirteen separate interviews, the examiners concluded that the man lives in his “own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions.” Breivik was reportedly “insulted” by the psychiatric finding, which is unsurprising given that the criminally insane tend to think that they, and only they, are rational. But the diagnosis also caused uproar across Norway, with many of the country’s citizens—particularly those members of the predominantly left-wing cultural, political, and academic elite—finding themselves in agreement with the mass-murdering, right-wing fanatic on the question of his mental state. 

And so, less than a month after the release of the initial psychiatric report and under obvious political pressure, the court departed from normal practice and commissioned a second evaluation. Just days before the trial started in April, this new and improved evaluation produced a more politically palatable diagnosis, finding Breivik “not psychotic at the time of the actions of terrorism and he is not psychotic now.” Breivik, according to his state-appointed defense attorney, was “pleased” with this new result, assured that his ideology had been legitimized by the Norwegian state as, at the very least, not the product of an insane mind. Now, attention could be drawn to the substance of those beliefs, rather than the details of how he went about murdering nearly eighty people. The debate had shifted from the criminality of Breivik’s actions to the validity of his political views.


Breivik’s sanity would ultimately be a matter for the court, composed of five judges, to decide. But the legal question of Breivik’s mental state at the time he committed his attack has consequences beyond whether he winds up in a psychiatric facility or prison. It affects more than just the length of his sentence, and whether he spends the rest of his life in custody rather than just twenty-one years, the maximum sentence for a criminal defendant considered sane. (At the end of the twenty-one-year term, prosecutors could argue that Breivik remains a threat to society and that he should remain behind bars.) Either way, given Norway’s notoriously cushy penal system, Breivik will live a relatively comfortable existence.

But deeming Breivik insane renders his crimes the work of a lone madman. If he is insane, then what he wrote on the page or declared in the courtroom ought to be given no more credence than the ravings of a man on the sidewalk preaching Armageddon.

Judging Breivik sane, however, has significant political implications. If Breivik believed he was acting rationally, the key determinant of sanity, then his stated reasons for murdering seventy-seven people must be part of the judicial process determining his guilt, in the same way that, say, a crime committed in the “heat of passion” is judged differently than a cold-blooded murder. Suddenly, every writer Breivik cited favorably in his essay could be considered complicit in his criminal act. Treating Breivik as sane allows those on the left, not just in Norway but around the world, to associate Breivik with all critics of Islam. Breivik may not have been a member of the Knights Templar, they concede, but he is indeed part of a dangerous worldwide “counter-jihad” movement comprising everyone and everything from the murdered Dutch politician and Islam critic Pim Fortuyn to the American pro-Israel community to the German neo-Nazi terrorist cell whose members murdered eight people of Turkish origin between 2000 and 2006.

Thus, the attempt to tar anyone who expresses even the slightest apprehension about the cultural and political mores of Muslim immigrants would take a particularly sick turn with the start of Breivik’s trial. Writer Bruce Bawer, who moved to Oslo in 1999, is one such critic. He has written two books about Muslim immigrants in Europe: While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within and Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom. Both come at the issue of Islamic immigration from a classically liberal perspective, arguing that European societies, rather than attempting to assimilate Muslims in the American “melting pot” model, have instead ceded to the demands of reactionary elements in Muslim communities. “Millions of European Muslims live in rigidly patriarchal families in rapidly growing enclaves where women are second-class citizens, and where non-Muslims dare not venture,” Bawer has written. “Surveys show that an unsettling percentage of Muslims in Europe reject Western values, despise the countries they live in, support the execution of homosexuals, and want to replace democracy with Sharia law.” For Bawer, who is himself gay, the political is personal.

Bawer has long annoyed the Norwegian elite by criticizing, often quite harshly, their reigning, bien pensant dicta: that a bellicose United States is responsible for most of the world’s problems, that Israel is the prime aggressor in the Middle East, and that the only problem with Muslim immigration is the people who criticize it. Breivik cited Bawer in his manifesto twenty-two times—always, though, in texts lifted wholesale from another writer.

The mere citation of Bawer, who, it ought to be said, has never come close to advocating violence against Muslims or members of the Norwegian Labor Party, was nonetheless enough for many to label him an accomplice to Breivik’s crimes. But Bawer is very different from some in the so-called “counter-jihad” movement, who may not explicitly call for violence against Muslims, but whose writings nevertheless have such an extremist quality to them that a deranged individual who reads them, like Breivik, could easily be led to think that violence is the only answer. When one writes in alarmist tones about Muslims as an undifferentiated, inflexible horde of rapidly breeding radicals who pose an existential threat to Judeo-Christian society—see, for instance, the works of the shrill but disturbingly popular right-wing blogger Pamela Geller—it is more than a little disingenuous to feign shock when acts of violence such as what happened on July 22, 2011, occur.

That said, Breivik’s ideology, and the effect that certain writers and political figures may or may not have had on it, was for the culture to debate, not the court to decide. The task of the Norwegian justice system, like that in any advanced democracy presented with such a crime, was simple: determine the accused’s guilt. Did Breivik commit the crimes he was accused of committing?

But the Norwegian court, working in unsubtle collusion with the defendant, had a more expansive notion of its responsibilities. It was not content with limiting itself to trying Breivik as a common criminal, answering the simple question of whether or not he was guilty of murdering seventy-seven people. It wanted to try those writers and intellectuals who had criticized Norway’s approach to dealing with Muslim immigrants. And so, in April, it readily conceded to Breivik’s request that he be able to call dozens of “expert witnesses,” none of whom had witnessed anything on July 22nd other than what they saw on their television screens like millions of others around the world. Included on the list, alongside the founder of a neo-Nazi group and several high-ranking leaders of the Labor Party, was Bruce Bawer.


Breivik’s purpose in assembling this motley crew was twofold. The first goal was to contradict the technical point that his views are “insane” by demonstrating that there is indeed an actual “war” being waged against the West by left-wing elites in cahoots with Muslims (thus the presence on the list, for example, of Mullah Krekar, a Kurdish Islamist granted asylum by Norway in 1991). Breivik’s second goal was to associate his views with a variety of conservative and classical liberal writers. If Breivik could demonstrate that his actions were the logical outgrowth of arguments made by such mainstream figures, then surely he could not be regarded as insane. The Norwegian elite may consider the ideas of these writers loathsome and “Islamophobic,” but that’s not the same thing as outright crazy. Morten Kinander, of Norway’s Civita think tank, told the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen that Breivik would “try to make the right the moral accomplice in his act.” Norway’s elite, for its own ideological and partisan political purposes, was more than happy to oblige.

Bawer understandably had no desire to partake in what he refers to as a “show trial.” (Agreeing with this characterization, his fellow “expert witness,” Norwegian author Hanne Nabintu Herland said, “I refuse to be dragged around the circus ring like another clown in the perpetrator’s bizarre delusions.”) The state-appointed defense counsel, underscoring the cynical motivation that lay behind its calling Bawer and others like him to testify, told Bawer that it would ask him about his e-book, The New Quislings: How the International Left Used the Oslo Massacre to Silence Debate about Islam, which was published half a year after Breivik’s day of carnage. Bawer refused to cooperate. In response, Breivik’s defense attorney, Geir Lippestad, said, “It’s a bit funny that those witnesses who are most preoccupied with speaking out, and who possibly think they’re not getting the opportunity to speak out, go into hiding when they get the opportunity to speak out and have the attention of the entire international media.” (Lippestad also told reporters, “I feel I have lost my soul as a result of this case,” the sort of indiscretion that, at least in America, would be grounds for disbarment from the legal profession, never mind forced recusal from the case.) Finally, lest there be any doubt about the court’s intent, the judges issued a statement explaining that, while the testimony of some witnesses would be broadcast on television, those with “indirect connections” to Breivik though “the extreme right-wing milieu,” like Bawer, would be censored.

The court informed Bawer that if he ignored its summons, he would be arrested and fined. “Plainly,” as Bawer later wrote, “the real reason for dragging some of Norway’s most prominent critics of Islam into court was to establish guilt by association—to link all of us, in the minds of Norwegians, with the most reviled creep in modern Norwegian history—and to send out the message that if you publicly criticize Islam in Norway, you can end up being dragged into court.” At the last minute, however, a reader brought to Bawer’s attention that, under Norwegian law, the state can only compel testimony from those who have actually witnessed a crime, not from so-called “expert witnesses” called to provide background or other subsidiary information. Apparently, the judges were not aware of this crucial feature of their own legal code prior to ordering Bawer’s appearance and threatening to charge him with a crime if he refused to show up.

Bawer was obviously not a witness to the crime; indeed, he happened to be in the United States on July 22nd. Nevertheless, the defense made a desperate, and fruitless, attempt to get Bawer and the others reclassified as regular witnesses. While Bawer did not testify, his ordeal nonetheless left him with an understandably bitter feeling toward the Norwegian judicial system. “It’s a mockery of justice,” Bawer told me.

Indeed, it was. But one would not get this impression by reading the international media coverage of the trial, as journalists from around the world tripped over themselves praising Norway’s response to Breivik. In a piece titled, “What Americans Can Learn from Norway’s Anders Breivik Trial,” a writer for the Atlantic reprimanded his fellow Americans for objecting to the holding of the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed being held in New York City, lauding the “liberal democratic architecture” of the Norwegian way. Norwegians were of course more than happy to soak up this praise for their twisted view of “justice,” which sees it as entirely appropriate for the state to scapegoat writers, essentially blaming them for a crime they had nothing to do with, solely because of their political beliefs. University of Oslo professor Thomas Mathiesen, for instance, smugly told the Associated Press that Norwegians did not seek “revenge, but sober, dignified treatment,” a view that “is deeply ingrained in Norwegian tradition and fundamental values,” and which sends “an important message to the world.”

At the end of her testimony, a lawyer for the victims’ families asked Tonje Brenna, the Labor Party youth leader, if she recognized any difference between the Breivik who killed dozens of her friends on Utoya and the man who sat just steps away from her in the courtroom. “He was in full control of the situation at Utoya, while here, he doesn’t have any control at all,” she said, with some visible self-satisfaction. The man who tried to kill her smiled at these words, for he knew that she was wrong.

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor for World Affairs and the New Republic.

Read in World Affairs Journal