The trial of Breivik feels to me like a liberal fantasy trying to dismantle a grotesque nightmare. It has pulled me up short. I have always believed that our systems should be open. Open societies, with open courts, open politics, uncensored media seemed to the logical way to go. I’ve come a cropper over this often. What limits do we place on pornography? Do we censor material that is inflammatory? And often I’ve ended up trying to shave the edges off things. Yes pornography should not be banned – why shouldn’t adults watch what they want (of course I am familiar with the arguments of exploitation, cruelty, cohesion) – but there must, of course, be limits. However, broadly, rather like with drugs I’ve felt that liberalisation, or freedom, was probably going to generate less horror than repression. Mine’s not a particularly cogent argument but it seemed, until Breivik, on balance the better place to be. Prohibition, secrecy, justice done behind closed doors, left the liberal in me imagining repression, clamp-downs.
Equally, I have studied the Nuremburg trials at the end of the second world war. They weren’t perfect but they did serve to begin to detoxify the world of the Nazism. And, though I know less about it, truth and reconciliation in South Africa must have forced some horrible behaviour and attitudes into the open.
So what is so troubling about Norway’s approach to Breivik?
I’m not arguing that his bizarre eyes, his over-weight puffy face, that stupid salute that will attract people. It is not a case of whether his arguments are provoking, or what he says is particularly interesting, but rather the very fact that he is what he is – has done what he has done – that will draw people to him.
Reading the details of what he did on Utaya Island – transcribed, thankfully, by journalists rather than being visible on screens everywhere – I began to understand the absolute conviction of self righteousness that allowed Breivik to do what he did. Whether he is, as I suspect, a narcissist fantasist or a political terrorist is beside the point. Reading that he DID it, reading that it was a series of choices, has, let a genie out of a very ghastly bottle. And it is this that so concerns me about Norway’s openness. If we were allowed to keep Breivik – at least in our imaginations – in a darkened place marked “unthinkable” he would remain a solitary figure. By allowing him to be seen in the light, clearly; to be tried as though he were just any other murderer has, I dread, planted the idea in minds that are vulnerable to such ideas the notion that it is somehow part of a process, what Breivik did, somehow a potentially necessary measure to an a particular end.
Hitler said that all it would have taken was a few good men to stop him. With Breivik being able to ‘rationalise’ what he did the Norwegians have demonstrated an extra-ordinary capacity but may have, also, brought something into the light that is so dark, so ghastly, that by trying to ‘rationalise’ it, ‘try’ it, they will have allowed other fools like Breivik to believe that their fantasies are acceptable, and are part of a rational society.