Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appropriate to the Harm

Tomorrow, Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who confessed to the mass murder of 77 people, mostly children, that made worldwide news last summer, will be formally adjudged either guilty or criminally insane for his crimes against humanity.

Breivik's own motivations, sane or otherwise, are by his own admission rooted in his ideology, a disturbing miasma of racism, sexism, militarism, and Islamophobia.  He later claimed that part of his aim in executing the mass slaughters was to bring attention to those views.

To be honest, I am genuinely torn about protecting such speech in trial under free speech and right to defense laws.  On the one hand, I'm a big believer in our own First Amendment and everything that it affords.  On the other, I think that hate speech that could reasonably be seen as inciting or encouraging violence should probably be banned.

Norway, for better or for worse, let Breivik present his defense largely unencumbered, but it is, rather, the state's case that deserves mention.

The best, and most moving, accounting of the state's case I've come across is from this piece from the New York Times, which describes not only the state's attempt to find Breivik guilty and sane, but also the state's voice for the people who died at Breivik's hands.

One of the things that has always bothered me about the American justice system (and as I am the son of both a judge and an attorney, rest assured, there are many) is the bluster we put up in the courts about "victim's rights."

Far too often, I think, prosecutions care more about conviction and punishment rather than actual justice.

This isn't an ode to being soft on crime--even though I'm anti-death penalty, I was aghast to see that Norway's maximum punishment for murder is 21 years imprisonment, though observers expect Breivik to be locked up for the rest of his life.  I honestly hope that he dies in prison, never having had a day of freedom for the rest of his life.

But no matter Breivik's ultimate fate, justice has already begun, in a way that I think is really quite amazing: the Norwegian prosecutors, after presenting the autopsy report for each victim, also presented from the victim's family a biography of that person--and since most of the victims were children and youth, the biographies were about their (now unfulfilled) hopes and ambitions for their lives.

Each of the 77 victims was accorded this respect.  Every.  Single.  One.

Even in death, their presence was still heard--by Breivik, by the court, by the world.

And in 77 people, each somehow unique, I have to imagine there was fair amount of diversity in those biographies and stories, probably including the sort of diversity that Breivik himself abhors.

There is a legal saying, ad quod damnum, that roughly translated into English means, "appropriate to the harm."  In a nutshell, it means that seeking justice for wrong should correspond to the damage one has suffered.

The damage we as a people have suffered comes not only from the loss of life, but the emotional harm that comes from such shock at a loss as this that completely contradicts our fundamental hope that people can be, or even are, good.

May that be a part of Breivik's punishment as well: the shock and loss that comes from seeing one's worldview demolished.  

May he see his own evil ideals drown in a culture he has come to loathe.

May he be forced to live in the chattering and clanging din of a world becoming more connected and more multifaceted,  where the older ways of cleaving apart society upon arbitrary lines of identity are no more.

It is a penance that you can help exact, by helping to bring such a respecting, diverse world about in your own life.

If there is such a thing as justice, may it include such retribution as this.

Yours in Christ,

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