A brief examination of the Anders Breivik verdict

For Anders Breivik, a 21-year sentence for the wanton slaughter of 77 innocents was a victory and gave his monstrous act political credibility


In what many U.S. citizens may see as gross injustice, confessed and now convicted murderer Anders Breivik received only a 21-year sentence for the wanton slaughter of 77 innocents, many of them children, on July 21, 2011. The sentence was as severe as anyone can receive under Norwegian law. His crime was the most horrendous committed in Norway since the Second World War.

For prosecutors, the verdict was a defeat. The State Attorney’s office had asked for the court to declare Breivik insane, which could have resulted in a virtual life sentence via indefinite detention in a psychiatric hospital. But in a strange twist, under Norwegian law he would not have been accountable for the deaths.

The defense argued Breivik was perfectly sane at the time of the attacks, a position that Breivik has also publicly claimed. At one point during testimony Breivik said he should be either acquitted or sentenced to death.

Breivik had claimed responsibility and demanded accountability.

Despite this boisterous challenge to the court, at the sentencing, Breivik “smirked” when the results were announced. For him, the ruling was a victory and gave his monstrous act political credibility.

In the future, should the courts find that Breivik remains a “menace to society,” his 21-year sentence could become life.

According to prosecutor Inga Bejer Engh, the State has no intention of appealing the judgment.

Breivik, for his part, had already told his attorneys that he would have appealed any verdict that found him “insane.”

For many Norwegians, the results should begin a national healing process. What some outside of Europe may find surprising, however, is that the ruling had broad support not only among Breivik’s surviving victims and families, but the Norwegian population as wekk. They wanted justice, not revenge. They wanted him held personally accountable, even if it meant only a 21-year sentence. No excuses. No psycho-babble. Merely justice.

The issue for Norway has been complex. The case highlighted the role medical principles play in Norway’s legal system. Should the panel have determined that Breivik was psychotic at the time of the murders, he would have been exempt from criminal punishment but not hospitalization in a secure facility. Outside of Norway a similar conclusion would mitigate punishment, not exonerate guilt.

Professor Simon Wessely, a professor of psychiatry in London, argues that the Breivik case is an interesting study because it shows that people who commit “barbaric criminal acts” do not have to be clinically insane. Like many in his profession, Dr. Wessely also believes that the purpose of psychiatry is not to absolve the accused from criminal responsibility.

Watching the case, Professor Wessely concluded that Breivik was not suffering under the strains of a mental illness at the time of the attack. The thorough planning and meticulous execution belied Breivik’s insanity.

The State’s risky strategy, arguing that Breivik was insane at the time of the attack, was unique not only in Norway, but elsewhere. Typically it’s the defense that makes this argument. In this case, however, the prosecution may not have believed that such a heinous crime could have resulted from clear-headed planning, based on a violent ideology (Breivik drew inspiration from the Serbs, not the Nazis), especially from a Norwegian. They may also have wanted something more than just 21 years.

With no life imprisonment alternative, they took a riskier approach.

Breivik’s attack has also been problematic for Norway’s Police Security Service. Several weeks ago, the 22 July Commission released a carefully crafted — yet critical — report on the police response to Breivik’s attack. Not only did the police fail to air a description of Breivik’s vehicle leaving downtown Oslo, which they had obtained from an eye-witness, they were also slow to respond to the shootings on the island.

The Norwegian judicial system fared much better than the police. It carried on the trial with grace and fairness. The court recognized Breivik’s rights to express his despicable views, but the judge never provided a soapbox. His trial was swift (certainly compared to US standards) and the results sure, even though one may fault the sentence. For the most part, the victims believed the penalty was sufficient and many can now try and move on with their lives. The survivors will never forget the tragic circumstances that have affected them so horribly. They know that the nation grieves with them.

The 21 July Commission results will lead to a slow but sure re-evaluation of Norway’s internal security measures. The Norwegian Storting (Parliament) did not rush through symbolic laws after the attack, and they will likely maintain their measured approach. Hopefully, those involved in the official process will keep in mind the delicate balance between the safety of the society and the rights of the people.

Behind the verdict and self-criticism, there has been a winner, and it’s not Breivik. It’s democracy, which is something the likes of Breivik will never understand. 

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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