On Friday a Norwegian court will hand down its verdict on Anders Behring Breivik, who, on July 22, 2011, detonated a bomb in central Oslo, killing eight people and wounding hundreds more, then drove to Utoya Island, where he shot and killed 69 participants in the Norwegian Labor Party’s youth camp.
The world’s attention is focused on whether the court will find Mr. Breivik guilty or criminally insane, and there has already been much debate about how the court handled the question of his sanity. But there is far more to it. Because it gave space to the story of each individual victim, allowed their families to express their loss and listened to the voices of the wounded, the Breivik trial provides a new model for justice in cases of terrorism and civilian mass murder.
It is true that, on one level, the trial is not just about the state of Mr. Breivik’s mind but forensic psychiatry itself. The trial featured two psychiatric reports, the first concluding that at the time of the crime Mr. Breivik was psychotic and delusional, the other that he was rational. The spectacle of two teams of psychiatrists brandishing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and its Norwegian equivalent, only to draw radically opposed conclusions, undermined many Norwegians’ faith in forensic psychiatry.
Less attention, however, has been paid to the court’s concern for the victims and their families. Before the trial began, the court named 174 lawyers, paid by the state, to protect the interests of the victims and their families during the criminal investigation and the trial.
The court heard 77 autopsy reports. Listening to the technical details of the bullet wounds and other causes of death of 77 human beings could be soul-numbing. Not in this case. After each report, the audience watched a photo of the victim, most often a teenager, and listened to a one-minute-long biography voicing his or her unfulfilled ambitions and dreams.
The court also allotted time to testimony from survivors, some with horrific injuries. We attended the trial during their testimonies, and to listen to the story of their pain and their efforts to continue their lives was indescribably moving. The effect was not just to establish in detail exactly what happened in Oslo and on Utoya, but to remind us that behind each number there is a human being.
On the last day of the trial, after summations by the prosecution and the defense, the court allowed five representatives of victims’ families and friends to express their loss. Some of them did so with such eloquence and power that the otherwise restrained audience (mostly victims and their families) applauded.
Such intense reminders of the human suffering and loss did not come at the expense of the defendant’s rights. At the opening of the trial Mr. Breivik was allowed to hold forth about his ideology, an amalgam of American right-wing propaganda and European anti-Muslim fascism and racism, for 73 minutes. He testified in court for over a week. He frequently corrected witnesses.
At the very end of the trial, he was even given the last word, haranguing the court for half an hour about the “deconstruction” of Norwegian ethnic purity at the hands of “cultural Marxists.” Mr. Breivik’s speeches in court were not broadcast, but they were transmitted live to local courthouses all over Norway and transcribed verbatim on several news Web sites.
The court took upon itself the task of bearing public witness for Norwegian society, and for history, to the truth of the Oslo bombing and the massacre at Utoya. By affirming the humanity of each victim, the court tried to satisfy a traumatized society’s thirst for truth and justice without denying the defendant’s right to a fair hearing.
The Breivik trial thus sought to provide a measure of restorative justice within the normal criminal court system. Unlike the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, the trial did not aim for reconciliation but for acknowledgment of the human suffering caused by the atrocities.
In recent years, courts around the world have chosen different ways to deal with cases involving terrorism and mass murder. Military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay are often closed, or rely on secret evidence. In the case of Jared L. Loughner, the man who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a plea bargain was considered preferable to a traumatizing trial.
The Breivik trial provides an example of the opposite point of view: that full acknowledgment of the truth of human suffering can have healing effects, for the victims and their families, and for a whole nation. That, even more than the verdict itself, should be the lasting legacy of this horrific event in Norway’s history.
Toril Moi and David L. Paletz are professors of literature and romance studies and of political science, respectively, at Duke University.