Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Cultural Irony of Anders Breivik's Punishment


Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@indiana.edu, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com

July 29, 2015


                My thanks for Dagrun Bennett for giving me her extra copy of journalist Ȧsne Seierstad’s One of Us, a comprehensive report describing Anders Breivik’s 2011 killing a total of 77 people by detonating a bomb outside the Ministry of Justice and by shooting down youth and staff at an island Labor Party camp, in the name of white supremacy at the age of 32; interviewing and focusing most heavily on the loss and grief of the victims; and offering a psycho-history of Breivik including interviews.  Essentially, Breivik comes across as an isolated, bullied, angry wannabe super-hero, ridiculed and rejected even in the occult circles he tries to belong to.

                From Dagrun and other Norwegian(-Americans), and from Seierstad herself, I appreciate the enormous shock that “one of us” could bomb, shoot and kill more Norwegians than at any time since WWII, and cause such personal loss and pain, predominantly of youth, in a country with less than half the population of my home state, Ohio.

                What most captures my attention is Breivik’s punishment.  Norway is world renowned for its relatively low incarceration rate, and for its policy that “deprivation of liberty is the punishment,” under a penal code whose literal translation is “the punishment law.”  The policy means that prisoners normally have access to computers and higher education, that furloughs are liberal, that prisoners who are not out of hand circulate freely and spend time with guards trained as social workers, that in practice the most time the most serious criminals receive is 2/3 of 21 years tops.

Breivik’s 21-year sentence is subject to indefinite 5-year extensions for the rest of his life.  He is confined in one of three independently locked cells at a time—one with plumbing, one with a bolted-down typewriter, and one with a bed.  All is painted gray.  The only view from one window is of tree tops higher than the prison wall.  Each time Breivik asks for and gets transported across the common area, he is subject to strip search before entering another cell.  For this reason, he writes mostly by hand in his living area.  He is not allowed to put anything on his walls, or otherwise decorate his cells.  His mail in and out is heavily censored and often blocked.  In theory, he has practically no chance for conversation with staff, only the opportunity to file rather pathetic complaints.

Apparently, the seriousness of the harm done by the crime implies the degree to which Breivik is deprived of liberty.  From a safety standpoint, the greatest problem is what prisoners, let alone outside community members if he lived among them, would do to him.  He has demonstrated that he cannot even attain status as a political or military leader or organizer even if his mail, while read, were not censored.  The further conditions of his confinement are, practically speaking, gratuitous.  They are, as Nils Christie put it, inflictions of pain, of punishment, unadorned retribution, to recognize the enormity of the death and suffering of his victims, including those left behind.  Seierstad’s book title is ironic, for she depicts him as not now, nor from early childhood ever having been, “one of us.”  Breivik has been excommunicated, a Durkheimian act of mechanical solidarity to demonstrate what “we” are NOT.  If isolation and rejection were the source of Breivik’s violent outburst, further isolation and rejection are the remedy.

Beside US political culture, in prisons as in education, I regard Norwegians as remarkably non-punitive—at home, in schools and in prisons.  The Norwegian tradition of “samarbeid,” translated as “cooperation,” literally translated “working together,” is remarkably strong.  The treatment of Anders Breivik reflects, even in what I have called a relatively “peaceful society,” there is an underlying conviction that those who wittingly hurt others must be named, blamed, and “given consequences,” or otherwise certified personally defective, no matter how otherwise “civilized” we become.

It is a paradox of efforts to make peace that when we feel violated, fear, pain and anger incline us to retaliate.  We may differ on whether retaliation is deserved or humane and caring, we may bury our fear, pain and resentment, we may civilize and refine punishment and confinement, but the feelings are undeniable.  So in victim-offender mediation, for example, it is vital that any attempts at conciliation be preceded by safe and ample opportunity to share and obtain acceptance and understanding of those feelings.  Or in South Africa, “reconciliation” with the violence of apartheid was conditioned on first obtaining “truth.”  Fear, pain and anger denied cannot become fear, pain and anger assuaged.  Once recognized and accepted, fear, pain and anger can become a prelude to samarbeid, to (re-)building mutual trust and acceptance.  Other than retaliation, the only option is indifference.  In that sense, the Norwegian response to Breivik’s violence indicates that he is indeed “one of us.”  Which leads me to a proposition: that would-be peacemakers know us all to be a lot more violent than those who would make war on wrongdoers allow themselves to imagine.  In moments of fear, pain and anger, peacemaking as doing things with others requires acknowledgment and safe, honest expression of our impulse to determine what is done to and for them.  The impulse to return violence with violence, suffering with suffering, lies in us all.  Love and peace, hal

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