Should Norway kill Anders Breivik?

This case tests my own ambivalent views.

Norway doesn’t impose capital punishment. If it did, would I want to kill this man who murdered almost 100 people? I don’t know….

I have written many pieces, here and elsewhere, expressing a near-abolitionist perspective on capital punishment. I stand by that perspective. Capital punishment in the United States is imposed in an arbitrary, often cruel and incompetent fashion that does not promote a safer society. The ritual sacrifice of some deranged or limited person who butchers a nun does not advance any goal I value.

This case tests my own ambivalent views. This is a calculated genocidal act. Its perpetrator hopes to inspire others by his example. We have every reason to believe that, left alive, he will do whatever he can to recruit others into a small but dangerous extremist movement.

Maybe, executing him will prove counterproductive. He might become a martyr, something on the lines of a neo-Nazi version of Che Guevara. Death penalty abolitionists will embrace this view. They believe that showing restraint, even in this case, highlights the self-confidence and strength of a pluralist democracy. I’m drawn to this view myself, particularly when we are talking about a society such as Norway that so exemplifies these values.

We should remember, though, that this is an empirical judgment. If the most efficient way to extirpate homicidal terrorism includes occasional executions of the perpetrators, that’s what I would favor.

I believe, on balance, that executing Tim Mcveigh was the right call. Bin Laden’s case was quite different. Still, I believe that killing him was the right and necessary, call, as well. Capital punishment was amply justified by the atrocities these men carefully perpetrated, and by the political challenge they sought to pose.

Plus, as Hannah Arendt once put things, these men don’t want to share planet Earth with me. I’d just as soon not share this planet with them, either.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

30 thoughts on “Should Norway kill Anders Breivik?”

  1. Just like Timmy and Osama: put him to death to shut him up. If there is one thing liberal and libertarian and conservative hold excessively dear it is the right to make free hate speech. The death penalty in these cases is really about guaranteeing termination of that “essential” right to rile and gall with words. Society if effect slams the door on any further hate communication. I concur with that assessment. Put a hypodermic bullet in him and shut up his pie-hole and pen forever…

    On another angle: I am sure glad we don’t allow our members of the tea party here in American to have easy access to fertilizer.
    Which is also to say: What is the philosophical difference between a tea party shouter and this white-right Norway freak?
    Answer: Nada mucho. In fact, if there was an international Tea party, he’d be a card-carrying member…

  2. There are two separate questions, which are too often conflated. The first is whether we should have capital punishment. The second is whether a particular person deserves to be executed. Some murderers may deserve to be executed, but it is impossible to execute them without also executing innocent people, and without executing people in on arbitrary and racist basis. Therefore, we should not have capital punishment, and debating whether a particular person deserves it is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  3. It has been reported that the maximum sentence he can receive is 21 years imprisonment. If I understood correctly, this means that the court could not impose 93 separate sentences of 21 years to be served consecutively, as might happen in the US, but a total of 21 years, period. He would still be able-bodied when released.

    It was reported at the time Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison that family members of his victims had received phone calls saying, “I am in his cell block. Don’t worry; he will be taken care of.” The implication was that a death penalty not applied by the court would be applied by other prisoners.

    Norwegian jurisprudence operates under a different set of principles from that of the US, and perhaps this reflects different societal values. Life without the possibility of parole has been offered to many juries here as an alternative to capital punishment, and juries have often been willing to impose that penalty in capital cases. It was surprising to hear that Norway does not have a similar penalty for extreme cases such as they are facing today.

  4. Life imprisonment with very little contact with media and the wider world would accomplish the same thing, but without the debatable morality of a state killing one of its own.

    The initial maximum sentence is 21 years, but the Norwegian judicial system can override this. It is likely he will spend life in prison. However, other murderers in Norway, such as the metal singer Varg Vikernes, who killed the singer of another band, was released from prison after 12 years. He was found stockpiling weapons, and sent back to prison for another three years. But even when he was denied parole, he was allowed out to visit his family occasionally. This, despite the fact that he has embraced a Nordic primitivist version of Nazism.

  5. Ed Whitney: “It has been reported that the maximum sentence he can receive is 21 years imprisonment.”

    This is not quite accurate. The maximum penalty under Norwegian law for any crime is indeed 21 years. However, Norwegian law allows for preventive detention afterwards (forvaring), which can in theory be extended indefinitely if the person continues to be a danger to society.

    “It was surprising to hear that Norway does not have a similar penalty for extreme cases such as they are facing today.”

    This is not all that unusual in Europe. Portugal was the first country to abolish life imprisonment. As another example, German law knows life sentences, but a life sentence without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional there.

  6. The last person executed in Norway was Vidkun Quisling IIRC. Apparently they established capital punishment to execute him, then abolished it again. I hope they don’t execute this guy.

    What James Wimberly said.

  7. I’m against the casual or the unjust imposition of the death penalty – that is to say, the way we usually encounter it in the US, the sort of death penalty that “conservative” politicians frequently espouse as a means to save money on incarceration, and whose process they want to see impeded by a bare minimum of appeals processes and other obstructions – inadequate representation, falsified evidence, undisclosed evidence, and other criminals confessing all having proven to have little ability to convince the proponents of American executions that even specific individuals should be saved from the Chair.

    All that being said, I’m a vindictive person given sufficient reason, and I think that gunning down fourscore teenagers because of their political leanings is definitely reason enough. I’d have no problem with this guy getting the chop, nor much compunction about how the sentence might be carried out – and, as with Bin Laden, I think that his body should be quietly disposed of. Indeed, his house should be bulldozed, and his relatives should be invited or perhaps even compelled into the witness protection program. Possibly the American witness protection program, to maximize distance. His guilt for these atrocities being unquestioned, everything about Mr. Breivik other than the monstrosity of his crimes should be erased from the face of the Earth, most of all his own person.

  8. “His guilt for these atrocities being unquestioned.”

    I suppose that the guilt of an innocent defendant has never been unquestioned. If there is a system in place to execute Breivik, then it will execute innocent people. There have been 138 death row inmates in the U.S. exonerated since 1973, and it would not be reasonable to believe that all the mistakes were caught.

  9. A twenty-one year maximum peanlty for two mass murders committed in one day! Incredible! The carefully methodical, sane Brevick thought this all out for years, including the liberal penal code. No wonder he didn´t turn his gun on himself.

  10. Probably. The powerful arguments against the death penalty are the practical arguments, not the in-principle ones. Some people do deserve death, and if there is, in effect, no real possibility of error with regard to the facts, then there seems to be no good reason for the state not to do justice. If we’d have captured Hitler, for example, or Pol Pot, it would not only have been permissible for us to execute them, it would have been obligatory. (To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to believe that someone who denies this has the proper respect for humanity… But that’s just a report on my psychology, not an argument…) I do take the argument seriously that says that if we have the death penalty, then we’ll execute innocent people (and this is unacceptable, and so…) But I don’t believe the first premise. If we only apply it in clear and unequivocal cases, then the conditinoal will be false. Of course clarity and unequivocalness seem to be matters of degree, though…and there’s the rub…

  11. Clarity and unequivocalness are not only matters of degree, but are decisions made by human beings, with all their flaws and prejudices.

  12. The last person executed in Norway was Vidkun Quisling IIRC.

    Ragnar Skancke was the last (another member of Quisling’s regime), with Albert Viljam Hagelin before him. But there is at least a little comeuppance in that respect, since it was their regime that reinstituted the death penalty

  13. “I suppose that the guilt of an innocent defendant has never been unquestioned.”

    I don’t think that being cute contributes to the discussion. There is no question that Breivik committed these crimes, only whether he had any help. Don’t act like you don’t understand that.

  14. Ragnar Skancke was the last (another member of Quisling’s regime), with Albert Viljam Hagelin before him.

    My but there’s something very fitting about a Nazi named Skancke.

  15. Anderson, you didn’t understand my point. My point is that a law that allowed capital punishment only when there is no question that the defendant did it would still result in the execution of innocent people. Therefore, there should be no law allowing Breivik’s execution.

  16. Henry, I take your point that complete certainty is a rare or even impossible thing, and I share your concern that any system allowing execution in response to truly extraordinary crimes with a highly unusual degree of certainty about the guilt is likely to degrade into a system allowing execution for much more minor crimes, and with much less certainty about guilt. My earlier comment tried to make clear my disdain for the American system, which has had these problems in spades, as when under Bill Clinton various drug trafficking offenses were made eligible for the Federal Death Penalty as a cheap political trick, or as when for as long as I can remember so-called “law-and-order” enthusiasts have called for people to be railroaded more rapidly to the Chair. As you say, it’s a certainty that innocent Americans have been executed; consider that poor schmuck convicted of killing his family by arson in Texas, for example.

    All that being said, and with no particular idea about how you’d encapsulate this preference in law or prevent later slippage, there are people for whom I think execution is entirely appropriate, even in a society that otherwise refuses the temptation. Israel executing Eichmann, and not executing anybody else, is a good example. I’d tend to think that Breivik should receive serious consideration for membership in an elite club of certified inhuman monsters eligible for execution by societies that don’t, as a general rule, execute people.

  17. Warren, I see your point about Eichmann; perhaps there should be a special category for war criminals who hold high government positions, such as Eichmann and George W. Bush. There’s certainly less possibility of executing the wrong man if we limit capital punishment to such people. But how do you distinguish Breivik from other murderers? By putting into the law an arbitrary number of murders that makes one subject to the death penalty?

    I don’t understand the strength of the wish for the death penalty; it seems almost to be too easy on the murderer because his suffering ends upon his death. Life-imprisonment is no picnic, and the murderer might even come to sincerely repent, as Karla Faye Tucker did before George W. Bush mocked her and had her killed.

  18. A practical argument against capital punishment for mass murderers: If you keep them alive, you can study them to try to figure out what makes them tick.

    I read an interesting article about Norway’s justice system, which emphasizes rehabilitation virtually to the exclusion of punishment. It seems there’s only 20 percent recidivism in Norway, compared to 50 to 60 percent in the U.S. and U.K.

  19. What does it mean for him to “deserve” anything? Should he be made to feel uncomfortable as a sort of payback for the pain he caused? How could he possibly suffer enough? You could torture him for the rest of his life and it wouldn’t even come close to the sadness he has caused. Could the manner of suffering even be replicated?

    Would it make people feel better to see him suffer? How much suffering would be enough? Surely there could never be a knife long enough, or a whip fast enough.

    Is there some “debt” to society that he must pay back? What would that transaction be? What could possibly be done with his blood?

    Maybe what we seek in vengeance is a vain attempt to erase the past, because we did not *deserve* what he did to us. Maybe we seek to right some cosmic wrong we see in the universe, by hammering our dull and useless limbs against the sky, in vain. Yet, there is nothing we can do, and this final truth is too much to bear.

    But, maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe by acknowledging our humble place in this violent world, we can make some sort of peace. Horrific things happen to us, everyday, sometimes just as brutally – plane crashes, car wrecks, volcanoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc.

    Yet where are the calls for vengeance then? Who is to pay the debt? Only a fool would demand justice. And thus these tragedies are so much more honorable, and less troublesome. Who would blame an earthquake, nothing more than the forces of nature at work?

    And so the question is: how is the murderer any less of a force of nature? He is either clearly a man with a troubled life, or a psychopath. In either case, it had nothing to do with his ability to make a rational decision. He was an assembly of factors that resulted in a coordinated force of destruction and evil, a walking tornado, a talking plague.

    And yet what may be most disturbing of all, is that unlike most natural disasters, society is at least partially to blame. From reading the man’s manifesto it was clear that he had plenty of help in the formulation and determination of his nightmarish plans. In fact, we’ve heard similar remarks from our elected politicians, pundits, and friends and neighbors.

    He is certainly guilty. But so too are we.

  20. Great article, Swift Loris! I’ve visited Norway a couple of times and love it. It’s a civilized, decent country. I think their idea of retributive justice is in line with a type of parenting I’ve found to be very successful with my own children — don’t punish, teach; don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, teach them what they should do. Given the country’s low crime rate and low rate of recidivism, this approach seems to work. However, a true psychopath is an anachronism. Someone like Anders Breivik is probably not capable of being rehabilitated. I suspect he may be placed in a mental institution for the rest of his life.

  21. Swift Loris, thanks for that. I’ve been pleased, even in this terrible situation, to hear about a penal system where life imprisonment is considered an exceptional case and not a default value.

    Winston Smith, I’m curious what you mean by “The powerful arguments against the death penalty are the practical arguments, not the in-principle ones.” Do you mean philosophically powerful, emotionally powerful, persuasively powerful, what?

  22. Norway abolished the death penalty in 1905 but imposed in 1945 as an extreme and necessary measure upon Vidkun Quisling. Perhaps the Norwegian people should consider doing the same with this rat.

  23. @Eli–He is certainly guilty. But so too are we.

    For some value of “we,” at any rate. Interesting post, Eli, mass murderer as natural disaster. Maybe “our” complicity could be compared to that of folks who choose to live near earthquake faults? Or on flood plains, or the slopes of volcanoes? Except that in the case of mass murder, it isn’t necessarily those who take the risks who get killed.

  24. Eli,

    He is certainly guilty. But so too are we.

    No. We are not. I’m not, and I doubt you or anyone else here is either.

    I don’t much care for collective guilt. Not only is it unjust, it tends too much to exonerate actual criminals, especially since it seems to come up so often in the case of horrible crimes like Breivik’s.

    As for capital punishment, I think Warren captures my views pretty well:

    ..there are people for whom I think execution is entirely appropriate, even in a society that otherwise refuses the temptation. Israel executing Eichmann, and not executing anybody else, is a good example. I’d tend to think that Breivik should receive serious consideration for membership in an elite club of certified inhuman monsters eligible for execution by societies that don’t, as a general rule, execute people.

  25. My own sense of morality tells me that killing a human being, under circumstances other than unavoidable immediate defense against greater violence, is essentially indistinguishable from any other murder.

    Not worth much, I know. But I do find it shocking that otherwise-decent human beings can be so strangely sanguine about the act of killing a fellow human by choice.

    Also, everything Eli said.

  26. Poor Norway. We export hate around the world and this is what happens. I wish we could just bring the bastard over here to the states so peaceful, kind Norway wouldn’t have to sully its hands whilst wringing Breivik’s neck. We are much better equipped to both create and deal with such monsters over here. I wish we could preserve Norwway’s innocence for her, and still mete out the punishment this wanton murderer so clearly deserves. I’d torture him a day for each victim, and shoot him for the crime of shattering one of the most humane and equitable societies on earth.

    By the way, I, like the author am anti capital punishment. This act of inhuman, deliberate cruelty however, deserves the darkest punishment the imagination can conjur up.

  27. When I said shatter, by the way, I meant emotionally. He will not succeed in ending Norway’s enviously civilized mannerisms.

Comments are closed.