Friday, April 20, 2012

Seeking Justice in Norway

One hundred and twenty-three years ago today, a boy was born in the Austrian town of Branau am Inn. Fifty years later, the man that boy became launched the bloodiest, most destructive war in the history of the world. Tens of millions died trying to bring him to justice, but in the end he took his own life beneath the ruins of Berlin before justice could catch up to him. There's no physical trace of him left today - the Soviets made sure of that - but in spirit, Adolf Hitler will always be with us; a midnight presence just beyond our vision, an echoing reminder of what humans can do when they sacrifice their humanity. We can't forget him, because to do so would be to invite him back into the light and allow his cycle to start all over again.

I can't help but think of Hitler when I read of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the self-proclaimed "Justicar Knight" responsible for the murder of seventy-seven people last summer because, in his fundamentally broken mind, he was fighting "anti-European racism" generated by "media and the Marxist elites." I can't recall if the media had enough power by the 1920s for Hitler to fulminate against it in Mein Kampf, but it nevertheless sounds starkly familiar. During his latest day in court, Breivik described hunting down teenagers on Utoya, specifically searching for ones hiding themselves away.

What's clear enough is that Breivik is cold and Breivik is remorseless. There's no question on the verdict that will be handed down at the end of the trial. On Wednesday, articles began to surface that Breivik only sees two "just and fair" ways for it to go; either acquittal, which is about as likely as Germany deciding to celebrate Adolf Hitler Day, or execution.

Hey, just because they said you're going to hang by the neck until dead, it doesn't mean you can't do it in a colorful way. Also, I suspect this might actually be a shoelace.

Norway, like most of the world, has rid itself of capital punishment - for peacetime cases such as Breivik's, judicial executions have been off the books for more than a hundred years, but exceptions were made for cases such as Vidkun Quisling, leader of the collaborationist Norwegian government during the war. Nevertheless, when I first heard of this, my first thought was that Breivik was right in his way, that the only just thing would be to execute him. That he was no longer fully human by virtue of his actions, that he was a monster, a thing that walked and talked and looked like us but was not one of us anymore and could never be one of us again, and that it became our responsibility to deal with him the way one would deal with a rabid dog.

But--I had forgotten that old Klingon proverb, that revenge is a dish best served cold. To say that there will be no measure of revenge in the punishment that's handed down on Breivik would be to ignore the way humans work. But to feed his twisted idea of what is "just and fair" would only let him win, the way Hitler "won" all those years ago. Execution isn't justice, not really. Execution is revenge, and execution enables the condemned to escape justice.

Let's go back to the end of the Second World War. Imagine if things had gone just slightly different... if Adolf Hitler had been captured alive by the Allies. He would have been brought to Nuremberg, he would have been the main event of Nuremberg, and there's absolutely no question that when it was over, Adolf Hitler would hang. Understandable, really - but not full justice, either.

Imagine a different world, where Hitler was captured, tried, and imprisoned for the rest of his life - say a fortress in Scotland or on St. Helena. If Hitler lived to be eighty, he would have died in 1969 - time enough to see the division of Germany, the rise of the Warsaw Pact, the construction of the Berlin Wall. He would not only have seen his dream of a thousand-year empire crumble, he would see Germany ground down and have to live with the knowledge that it was his fault - and only then would he die, an solitary old man, broken and powerless, hated and mocked but never forgotten.

To give Breivik what he wants would be a miscarriage of justice. The only just thing is to do what the law already sets down - to imprison him, and once he's behind bars he won't ever see freedom again. What he will see is a country and a world that goes on, that moves beyond him... that forgets about him. Breivik is no Hitler; while those who died at his hands deserve to be remembered and memorialized, the only just punishment for Anders Behring Breivik is for him to grow old knowing that he was a failure and that he will be forgotten.

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