Sometimes the ignorance and hypocrisy of people amaze me. It can be a gentle roll-of-the-eyes moment when I realise that the person in conversation with me doesn’t know where Bhutan is. Other times, it is a stop-me-in-my-tracks incident that makes me question how we have allowed our ‘civilised’ society to be moulded into what passes for civilised today. There are moments, like Abu Ghraib, which put under the microscope my belief that the western world is a civilised one that forswears vengeance and retribution in favour of justice and right.
For three weeks I’ve been having one of those moments. For three weeks I have been unable to shake a question deep in my head, about why some people believe justice equals revenge and revenge equals justice. And for three weeks I’ve been awe struck by the determined approach of the people of Norway to prevent their society from being be bastardised in the name of justice.
It started as I listened to Talkback, a local phone-in radio show on BBC Radio Ulster; not a regular habit because on the rare occasions that I listen to some of the show, I usually leave the car filled with despair at the place in which I live and the people who inhabit it. It is almost virtually guaranteed to give me a moment of eye rolling.
The segment in question was about reaction to the sentence given to Anders Behring Brevik; sentenced to 21 years for the murder of 77 people in bombing and shooting attacks in Norway last year, it was the maximum sentence available under Norwegian law. Two Norwegian guests, one a journalist and one a student who was actually on the island of Utoya when Brevik carried out his massacre there, had spent ten minutes methodically and articulately explaining the context for the sentence – 21 years would almost certainly be extended to life because Brevik would still be a danger; Norway wanted to move on and not have its legal system defined (or redefined) by the actions of one crazy man; the people of Norway were proud of their society’s ability to recognise and punish evil whilst not being consumed with the need for justice and revenge. In the student’s – Tor – words, “we will not subvert the principles of our legal system to suit a need for bloody revenge…we want to be better than him.”
But the people of Northern Ireland could not understand it. Indeed, a lot of the reaction I read from the UK and US was based on peoples’ inability to understand why the sentence was so lenient. The ‘good’ people of Northern Ireland wanted Brevik to die for his actions. They believed that the only justice available for those who were murdered and for their families who remained was that Brevik should be killed. Of perhaps eight or ten messages read out, only one or two ran counter to the “Kill Him” mentality. The show’s stand-in host, William Crawley, almost apologised for the reaction when explaining to his Norwegian guests that it needed to be understood in the context of Northern Ireland having suffered from terrorism over the years.
One caller stated bluntly, in that particularly blunt North Antrim accent, “I’d just like to say that I believe that Anders Brevik should be hung.” Asked why, he responded “I say that because I think of the victims” before going on to say that all murderers should be hung.
The reaction of Tor, one of those young people who had managed to survive Brevik’s madness, was as inspiring as it was withering, saying that he would rather die than live in a country that had the death penalty – “I am very, very fortunate to live in a country where the death penalty is not part of our legal system.”
“We try to be more civilised than him. There’s no revenge; there can be no revenge. You cannot kill him 77 times. However, we can choose how we allow it to shape our society…This is about attacking the principles of our democracy. He had a problem with our organisation because our organisation, in a democratic society, can build confidence around our political programme in a way that he was unable to; and he was unable to get power through democratic means, and he couldn’t handle it. He didn’t even have the cowardice to attack unarmed adults. Instead, he had the cowardice to attack unarmed children.”
Tor saw the cries for the death penalty as being in line with Brevik’s political views, not those of a civilised society that was willing to defend rational debate and democratic principles nor those of a society that was unwilling to compromise its principles on the basis of the actions of one man, however destructive and heinous those actions were. “We are not allowing someone like that to set the agenda,” he declared.
Stephen’s response was silence. He was gone. He had no ability or confidence to argue his point. I would like to say that he had no ability or confidence to argue his point because his opinion was based on an emotional belief that revenge is the same as justice, not on a principled belief that the death penalty is a deterrent for murderers. But I can only make an assumption that that was why Stephen had hung up. I can only assume that Stephen was unwilling to defend murderous revenge against a victim of the murderer himself, a victim who was resolute in his belief that revenge was not the answer for Norway.
There is perhaps no better legacy for the 77 people whom Brevik brutally killed last year, nor no better sense of justice for them than that his actions do not cause Norway to become obsessed with security or revenge in the way that other countries have done. In Tor’s words again, “We didn’t choose what occurred, but we can choose what changes we will allow that to trigger in our society.”