Thursday, May 5, 2016

Look at Me

Nothing demonstrates a society's faith in the rock-bottom decency of human beings than the manner with which it treats its criminals. Of course, the faith of some people in human decency appears to be far greater than that of others.

On April 20, a verdict was returned by the Oslo district court in Norway regarding a case brought against the state by Anders Behring Breivik. As everyone should know by now, Breivik is a Norwegian man who, on July 22, 2011, set off a bomb near a government building in Oslo, killing eight people. After lighting the bomb's fuse inside a parked van, Breivik then proceeded directly to a tiny island called Utøya where the country's ruling Labor Party was sponsoring a youth summer camp. With two guns, a Ruger carbine and a 9mm Glock, and a bag full of ammunition, Breivik strolled around the island for more than an hour, shooting everyone he encountered, often at point blank range, killing sixty-nine. When police finally arrived, he quietly surrendered to them, as if it, too, was a part of his plan. Before leaving his mother's flat on that horrific morning, where he had been living and where he had manufactured the bomb, he emailed a 1,500-word manifesto to a thousand online recipients in which he stated that he wanted his actions to provoke a revolution in Norway, and in every other European country, against immigrants, especially against what he called a "Muslim invasion." He also uploaded a 12-minute video to YouTube declaring the same message.(1)

Almost immediately after being taken into police custody, Breivik began to complain about the most trivial things. Asne Seierstad, in her article in The New Yorker, wrote:

"When his bloodied shoes were put in a plastic bag and he was given slippers, he refused to wear them. 'I don't want to be seen in these; they are riduculous,' he said." (2)

Then Breivik discovered that, during the shootings, he had somehow cut his finger and was bleeding. He remembered that, during the shootings on Utøya, he had been hit in the hand by something - probably a piece of the skull of one of his victims whom he had shot in the head. He continued until his interrogation, when he demanded a bandage. One of the policemen present muttered that he would get "no fucking bandage" from him. So Breivik refused to any more questions until he got a bandaid. Someone got it for him.

At the end of his ten-week trial in 2012, in which there was conflicting psychiatric opinion about his mental state (the court concluded he was not psychotic, although his total lack of remorse clearly showed that he was a sociopath), he was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison, the longest penalty under Norwegian law, but the sentence can be extended indefinitely.

In prison, Brievik was subjected to daily strip-searches, found himself separated from visitors by a glass partition, was prevented from communicating with his followers, and was restricted to solitary confinement for lengthy periods. Breivik complained to prison officials, as well as directly to the press about other things as well, such as having to use a Playstation 2 rather than a Playstation 3, having to drink cold coffee or not having enough butter for his bread, and about the total absence of artworks in the prison. He claimed that the resulting psychological damage made him a fan of a reality television dating show.  

Last year, Breivik filed suit against the state because some of the conditions under which he is obliged to live are, he claimed, a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting "inhumane and degrading treatment". Having to see him again every night on Norwegian television as his case was presented to the court, made the wounds of the families who lost a son or a daughter, a sibling or a friend in the massacre, bleed again. Seeing Breivik obviously relishing the publicity, his taking the stage once again, enraged everyone. Yet the law required that the court hear Breivik's complaints. And last month the court ruled in his favor, agreeing that there was deliberately inhumane and degrading treatment of him, but that some of the terms of his confinement, like his being prevented from communicating with his followers, should continue. And now the state has appealed the court's decision, Breivik will be provided with still more attention from the press, and Norwegians subjected to further outrage.

Some of the most acute minds in Norway have spent the years since the Utøya massacre trying to figure out how Breivik could have brought himself to the point of committing mass murder, and then to have carried it out without the slightest comprehension of wrong-doing. In another New Yorker article, published a year ago, Karl Ove Knausgaard tried to comprehend Breivik. "The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to 'show' us. . . He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me."(3)

If Breivik had committed his massacre in the U.S., it's fairly certain that by now he would be dead. Like Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (an act that Breivik tried to repeat with his Oslo bomb) and who was put to death by lethal injection in 2001, Breivik would have been expeditiously tried by a federal court, convicted, and sentenced to death - all out of consideration to the victims and in the interests of "justice." In Europe, however, capital punishment has long since been abolished. Brevik must spend the rest of his life in prison. The survivors of the massacre and the families of the victims never expected justice, since no matter what they did to Breivik, the seventy-seven dead will never be brought back. The responsibility of the state, therefore, is to keep him in one sort of confinement or other until he, too, is dead.

What is the purpose of incarcerating convicted criminals? My father, after his retirement from the Army, got a job as a guard at a prison in South Carolina, and it gave me a lesson in the confusion Americans evidently had towards prison inmates. Because of his experience with weapons, my father worked in one of the prison towers with a high-powered rifle and instructions to shoot anyone who tried to climb over one of the high fences near the main gate. Since he worked the graveyard shift, I remember he drank alot of coffee and slept all day.

The prison where he worked, down by the Congaree River in Columbia, was officially known as the South Carolina State Penetentiary. Penetentiary is an old word, betraying an old conception of imprisonment that has little meaning any more. It's where "penitents" - confessed sinners - go. The state department was called the Department of Corrections. That prisons "correct" prisoners is a liberal 20th-century idea that is the expression of a different understanding of what happens when someone breaks the law and what society needs to do about them.

Anders Breivik seems determined not to go quietly into the living oblivion that Norwegian law has sought to place him. "Every time his name appears in public," Knausgaard wrote, "he gets what he wants, and becomes who he wants, while those whom he murdered, at whose expense he asserted himself, lost not onky their lives but also their names - we remember his name, but they have become numbers."


(1) Charles Manson believed that the Tate-Labianca murders carried out by members of his "family" would spark a race war.
(2) "Mercy for a Terroist in Norway," The New Yorker, April 25, 2016.
(3) "The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer," The New Yorker, May 25, 2015.

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