Where This Meets That
As preface to his trial and in response to expectations that he would be declared insane, Breivik wrote, “. . . this is the worst thing that could have happened to me as it is the ultimate humiliation. To send a political activist to a mental hospital is more sadistic and evil than to kill him! It is a fate worse than death.”
Last week, an Oslo court sided with Breivik and ruled him sane, despite psychiatric evaluations to the contrary. The court sentenced him to 21 years, the maximum possible term, though it will probably be extended.
This case triggers many important questions.
Sanity vs. Reality
First, what is sanity? This question forces a second: what is reality? The two are inexorably entwined, though whether they are truly related is an interesting debate.
There is a line in the 1994 horror film In the Mouth of Madness that claims, “Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority.”
What we consider “reality” is, in reality, a baseline, a currency, and it is malleable. Most moral codes agree on certain principles (i.e., “murder is wrong”) while conflicting on certain contexts (i.e., “. . . but killing in war is not ‘murder'”).
I certainly acknowledge that there are circumstances under which taking human life is justifiable, even perhaps necessary. Natural law recognizes this, as does every other set of laws I know of (again, under certain contexts). But in what reality can the killing of 77 innocent and unarmed people (and targeting even more) be accepted as a “sane” act?
Writing for Time.com, Mark Lewis notes, “By any lay measure, Breivik is a combination of [‘mad and bad’], evidenced by his weird twitches, blank face, lack of emotion as he described murdering scores of children and the sheer scale of his crimes.” Of course, Breivik’s level of preparation and cold calculation over a period of nine years testify to his sanity, right down to using “meditation techniques to cut off his emotions,” according to Judge Arne Lyng.
But what sane human mind would aspire to such a despicable end? Clearly an individual operating in a very different reality.
Rehabilitation vs. Retribution
This brings us to the topic of punishment. Norway’s system admirably aims for rehabilitation over retribution, and as such, capital punishment is not an option. I salute them for the ideal to which they strive. Nevertheless, Breivik’s “sane” episode of mass murder directly assaulted dozens of families and shook a nation to its core.
Norway’s maximum penalty for murder is 21 years, after which a panel will review the prisoner’s status every five years. Nobody expects Breivik to ever walk free again. Instead he will reside in a 86 square-foot suite that includes a bed, fitness equipment, and a computer (without internet).
All for following a carefully calculated militaristic assault on a civilian population to combat a growing influx of Islamic citizens and a rising “Eurabia”. A motive sanely perceived and a response sanely waged, ruled the Norwegian court comprised of five judges.
With that in mind, is murder to be deemed a sane course of action for an unemployed homeless man who simply wants a climate control in a collapsing European economy? Despite the well-intended Norwegian philosophy, doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent?
While the Norwegian ethos exhibited by Breivik’s sentencing is commendable, it is dangerous. This is a man who consciously stepped outside the natural order of law and humanity and emphatically disassociated himself from both.
We all know the basic alternatives to Norway’s philosophy for such offenders: life in prison or death there. As a Christian, I tend to oppose capital punishment. However, in cases like this, where a perpetrator has carried out such grievous crimes against humanity, his actions have severed himself from humanity, a line is crossed beyond which the question of sanity or intent is empty semantics.
The proverbial key should be thrown far away, which begs questions about human rights and the death penalty. Life in prison or death there: which sentence is really crueler or more unusual?
Or, certain crimes considered, does it really matter?