Thu, Apr 28, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Human rights can be hard for society to live with

Many have found a Norwegian court’s ruling that mass murderer Anders Breivik was being tortured by his treatment in prison hard to swallow, testing conceptions of human rights

By Nick Cohen  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain people

I would not have been shocked if a spectator in the public gallery had produced a gun and shot him. If I had had a gun, and thought I could have got away with it, I might have done it myself and claimed justifiable homicide. The Norwegian justice system can seem like a model of universal human rights in action, until you sit in an Oslo courtroom and watch how it deals with Anders Breivik.

We say we believe in human rights, but say it too easily and you can duck the question: What do you mean by a human right? Specifically in the case of Breivik, what precisely do we mean by the human right not to be tortured?

When I was in Oslo in 2012, I was astonished by the deference with which the court treated the puffy-faced fascist.

The “accused will always be given the opportunity to comment upon what the witnesses have said,” Norway’s court rules read.

The witness Breivik could barrack that day was Tonje Brenna, an organizer of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth league. She described how she hid and tried to save a wounded girl, while the bodies of her slain friends fell around her.

The geography of the island of Utoya, where the activists were having their summer camp, limited her movement as much as her determination to help her injured comrade. It is a flat piece of land of little more than 10 hectares in Lake Tyrifjorden, west of Oslo. She had no hills to run to, no caves to hide in. Brenna could only cower on the cliff side of a low escarpment, hoping that Breivik would not notice her and her bleeding friend, while suppressing the urge to scream as bodies toppled over the cliff edge above them.

She gave her evidence with remarkable dignity, and at the end of it, the lead judge turned to Breivik and invited him to say anything he wanted.

He was free to jeer at her, humiliate her, gloat over the deaths of her comrades.

When I told Norwegians the British would not tolerate anything beyond the defendant questioning evidence, they were rather stern with me: This is our system. Terrorists had the same rights as everyone else. We cannot sink to their level.

Which is what everyone is meant to believe.

Which is what many right-thinking people said last week when judge Helen Andenas Sekulic and her colleagues decided that the Norwegian state was torturing Breivik, by holding him in solitary confinement. Their defence of basic principles played to our myth of Scandinavia as a land filled with rational liberals, better than and purer than the rest of fallen humanity.

If the stereotype were ever true, it is not true now. Before he shot 69 young social democrats and murdered another eight Norwegians with a car bomb, Breivik left a vast and vastly incomprehensible manifesto. Much of it reads like a Telegraph commentator suffering from delirium tremens.

Breivik gibbers about “cultural Marxism,” the “Frankfurt School” and, of course, the “EUSSR.”

However, in his description of how he wanted men like him to kill, Breivik was lucid.

He might not have known it, but he believed in the 19th-century anarchist philosophy of “propaganda of the deed.”

The act of terror would spread his ideas and inspire converts to become “Justiciar Knights” just like him. The greatest believers in propaganda of the deed today are radical Islamists, and in common with more people on the far right than you would imagine, Breivik admired them.

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