As part of ICCT’s Terrorists on Trial (ToT) project, a delegation of researchers spent five days in Oslo in August to investigate the impact of the Anders Behring Breivik trial on society. On 24 August, Breivik was declared criminally sane and sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment (with an option for prolongation for as long as he is found to be a danger to society) for carrying out the bomb and gun attacks that left 77 people dead in Norway on 22 July 2011. Now that the final verdict is out, we ask: To what extent did the trial and the final verdict achieve the classic goals of criminal justice: retribution, prevention, restoring democratic order and upholding the rule of law? And does the final verdict provide closure for Norwegian society – i.e. how does it affect the coping mechanisms in society?
ICCT’s ToT Research Project focuses on the performative and communicative aspects of terrorist trials. The project is led by Prof. Dr. Beatrice de Graaf and consists of a paper and a series of seminars analysing different terrorist trials. Based upon 300 surveys and interviews with the parties involved in the 22nd of July trial, this commentary, shares some of the initial research findings. The full results will be published both on the ToT blog and later in a forthcoming publication.
Positive Reactions to the Verdict
Anders Behring Breivik’s 21-year jail term closes Norway’s darkest chapter. The main reaction to the verdict was relief, both among victims and the rest of Norwegian society. Utøya survivor Tore SindiingBekkedal: "I am very relieved and happy about the outcome. I believe he is mad, but it is political madness and not psychiatric madness. He is a pathetic and a sad little person". Another Utøya survivor, Frida Holm Skoglund, said: “I’m going to fully live the first day of the rest of my life”.
The initial results of the survey show that the trial had a neutral to positive effect on peoples’ coping mechanisms. In answer to the question: "The 22nd of July trial enabled me to better cope with my feelings concerning the attacks", 29.1 percent of the respondents agreed, 7.3 percent totally agreed, 47.3 percent were neutral about this statement and 5.4 percent disagreed or totally disagreed. Another positive sign is that people coped with their feelings in an active way, with 33 percent stating that "I went to a memorial" and 60 percent that "I followed the news to cope with my emotions". Psychological research argues that an active coping style significantly protects against distress, whereas people with an avoidant coping style suffer from negative psychological consequences.
But, many Norwegians interviewed felt proud about the way both the court and the country have dealt with this national trauma. This was particularly evident in the way that the court provided space and recognition for all of the 467 persons wounded or killed in the attacks. This was an impressive and highly emotional moment. By reading aloud their names, by enumerating their tragic fate or casualties, and by identifying them by their names and occupations, the court gave them a memorial, and made the trial into a moment of commemoration and recognition - one of the major conditions for enabling coping processes in post traumatic situations.
Many also emphasised the importance of the trial as a democratic, legal process. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg stressed the role of legality saying: "The review of the horrific details of the case have been an ordeal for many, but it was necessary in accordance with the principles of our legal system". Breivik tried to use the trial to provoke a cultural revolution and to advance his feelings of hatred. However, Norway chose to respond to his inhumane acts with its own civilised principles: the rule of law, democracy and an open society. This is also supported by the survey results, in which many people emphasised the role of democratic values and their importance in the trial.
Negative Reactions to the Verdict
Interestingly, we found that the majority of our survey respondents seemed not to focus on the aspect of revenge in this trial. In the survey eight goals of a trial were listed, including the three classic goals of criminal justice: revenge, specific prevention and symbolic function of the trial towards society. Where most people chose specific and general prevention as two of the most important goals, as little as 8 percent of the respondents chose revenge.
According to Laila Bokhari, member of the 22nd of July Committee who investigated the attacks in Oslo and Utoya, much of the anger in society is instead focused on the government and police failures that were published in the report. “So many things went wrong on so many levels that day. For Norwegians, Breivik is obviously to blame for the attacks. But the outcomes could have been very different if intelligence and police services had reacted better and if many policy changes that had been planned earlier would have actually been implemented”. Bokhari feels society is also partly to blame itself for what happened as well. “Our report stresses three things: attitudes, leadership and culture. Fundamental changes on those three levels are needed to make people more aware and better prepared”.
Another, more subdued reaction, however, pertained to the question of right-wing extremism in Norway. Tore Bjørgo, a renowned Norwegian terrorism expert, pointed out the risks of Breivik becoming a hero for right-wing extremists groups, especially when he will continue to communicate his ideas by writing books and corresponding with like-minded extremists from his prison cell. Many Norwegians are wondering how to deal with (isolated) right-extremists from now on. Should this risk be placed higher on the political agenda? At the same time some Norwegians are afraid of the outcome of such a debate, pointing out the implications it might have for their privacy and personal freedoms. One respondent summarised this by writing: "Don’t let one terrorist take our rights".
All in all, the verdict has had multiple societal effects. Most victims are relieved, as their reactions show. Also, as polls before the verdict have shown, 72 percent of Norwegians wanted him to be declared sane. However some of the survivors say that they are left with a "bittersweet" feeling after the verdict. On the one hand, they are happy that Breivik has been declared sane, because they were convinced that he was. On the other hand, Breivik himself is also satisfied with this sentence and this paradox has caused mixed feelings. But aside from these negative feelings, most people we interviewed do not focus on revenge. Instead, they stress the importance of the role of democratic and legal processes.
With this verdict, people feel they can close an important chapter in the Breivik-case, even though the feelings of grief and loss will not stop after the verdict. The trial provided Norwegians with a (physical) space to share their perspectives, feelings and principles that underlie the fabric of their society. It showed that it is possible to try a high profile defendant in an open and fair setting in a civilian court, with measured responses from the public. The proceedings showed that a democratic society, strongly based on the rule of law, was able to stick to these very principles – even when trying the perpetrator of such devastating terrorist acts.