In Oslo, Anders Breivik opened his trial on 77 counts of murder in much the manner he has conducted himself since he perpetrated the massacre on Utoya Island last year — by claiming responsibility for the acts, while refusing to acknowledge guilt, arguing that he was acting in “self-defence”. He further refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, arguing that it was constituted by the multicultural parties who were selling out Norway.

Though the trial has only just started, it has already created something of a judicial crisis in Norway. Following the horrifying massacre, and Breivik’s brazen confession of his guilt, there was concern that the Norwegian justice system simply wasn’t up to the task of dealing with such evil. Norway has a 21-year maximum sentence for all crimes, the result of a quiet, rural fishing nation subsequently transformed into a peaceful social democracy.

Though it also has provision for indefinite detention, the prospect that a parole board of the future would determine that a 55-year-old Breivik was sufficiently rehabilitated to enjoy 30 or so years of free life that he had denied to dozens of young people was too much to contemplate.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

Perhaps that was impetus for the next, utterly surprising decision: the ruling by a panel of two psychiatrists that Breivik was psychotic, not responsible for his actions, and therefore unfit to be tried. Since Breivik’s operation had demanded years of meticulous planning, dealing with a real external world, and since he himself had called his actions “repellent but necessary”, hopping himself up on steroids and heavy metal music to get through it.

Both inside and outside Norway, the psychiatric ruling was met with dismay, disbelief and open contempt. Bizarrely, the psychiatrists charged with assessing Breivik had seemed unable to apply the most basic psychiatric metrics effectively, assessing Breivik as “two out of a hundred” on a psychosis scale — a score reserved for patients that are effectively catatonic and unable to care for themselves. The storm of protest resulted in a new psychiatric assessment, which ruled him as sane and responsible for his actions. The trial judges will now have to choose between the two assessments.

That difficulty alerts one to another problem with the Norwegian justice system in a case such as this — the absence of juries and the reliance on lay judges. A five-judge panel will assess Breivik’s guilt — two professional judges, and three lay judges (a teacher, a civil servant and a hairdresser). Essentially, Norway’s most lethal peace-time crime ever is being assessed in the manner of a magistrate’s court dealing with a parking fines appeal.

Furthermore, as Breivik himself notes, the courts are inherently political — lay judges are appointed by political parties in the exact proportion of their parliamentary vote. The system is common across Scandinavia, and it’s a backward, ramshackle corporatist version of justice, long in need of reform.

But, of course, this trial is made all the more unusual by the fact that Breivik and his legal team will be fighting hard to make sure that the court rules him sane. Breivik has let it be known that he regarded the insanity ruling, unsurprisingly, as the greatest of insults. Perhaps that was part of the not-too-well-thought-out point of it — to draw any notion of political and personal meaning out of the act, to utterly marginalise it. That would fit in with one of the less amenable aspects of Scandinavian social democracy — its tendency to regard any politically “extremist” ideas as simply outside of the ambit of commonsense and sanity.

That pose is part of a comprehensive project of political forgetting in the postwar years — Norway was a hotbed of Nordic fascism for decades, and it is not for nothing that one of its few contributions to English is the eponym “quisling”. That Norwegians took the opportunity of World War II to kill each other in significant numbers is something Breivik’s actions have brought back to the surface.

His notion of social “traitors” and his targeting of them rather than actual Muslim immigrants is further testimony to the fact that he was not a deranged violent man, roiling with race hate and paranoia until he exploded — but a rational political operative whose methods were those of the coolly calculated outrage, his beliefs, if not his methods, held in common with the mainstream hard-right across three continents.

To say that Breivik seems unquestionably sane as regards the nature and gravity of his actions is not to say that he is without petty delusions. The Oslo court heard yesterday that he believed himself to be a member of a revived Knights Templar chapter across Europe — a group that, if it exists at all, is some sort of loose meme bouncing around a few right-wing websites. Breivik was not the “lone wolf”, a Nordic Travis Bickle, that the hard-right would like to present him as — he’d been a member of Norway’s hard-right anti-immigrant party, had links with the Muslim-hating English Democratic League, and other writers in Europe’s hard-right blogosphere. But he had consciously isolated himself in order to avoid police monitoring, to be a cell of one.Breivik’s conscious strategy led the usual crowd of blithering idiots — most of them in the Australian commentariat — to assess him on face value, as someone whose ideas did not fit together, made no sense. Given that he had released a cogent, if elephantine, 1500-page manifesto (much of it long extracts) on the morning of the manifesto, that pose was difficult to sustain — unless you were wilfully ignorant of the wider context of European right violence.

From relentless attacks on Roma people in eastern Europe and Italy — now state-sponsored by the Northern League and Hungary’s Jobbik party –to the “Casa Pound” neo-fascist groups in Italy who attack, sometimes lethally, isolated African migrants, to neo-Nazi attacks in East Germany, homophobic attacks in Poland, and menacing “demonstrations” by the EDL in the UK, Breivik’s targeted, lethal attacks swim in a sea of violence, much of it fuelled by a calculated right-wing hysteria pumped out by “respectable” authors such as Mark Steyn and Daniel Pipes.

Having labelled Breivik as an Islamist when the attacks began — even as it was clear that the attacked did not have the style of an Islamist attack — the hard-Right then became desperate to attempt to represent him as a lone crazy. Andrew Bolt, in what one can only call a moment of white-boned nihilism, attempted to portray the roots of his violence as due to being the child of divorced parents and a distant father. Hardly surprising really — yesterday the court saw evidence of Breivik’s premeditation, a short internet film/collage he had made featuring, inter alia, a cover of The Spectator with a burka’d “pregnant” Muslim wearing a suicide bomb.

It was the only time in the trial — which included taped phone calls of survivors of his massacre — that Breivik showed any emotion. As his defence use the wider context of European hard-right thinking to contextualise his actions, there will be much more of that to come, none of it very comfortable for the hysterical Muslim-hating Right. We’ll see, over the next 10 weeks, whether they have the courage to confront their own nihilistic conduct over the past decade, in light of one of its consequences.

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%