It's Always Something

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Nikki Stern

Nikki Stern
Princeton, New Jersey, USA
April 10
whatever sounds good
Sure, come on in
Author of "Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority" ( and "Hope in Small Doses" and busy blogger at


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 18, 2012 6:07PM

Die Hard

Rate: 31 Flag

Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?
–credited variously to Norman Mailer, Gandhi and other sources

Anders Breivik, the Norwegian gunman who killed 77 people in one of Norway’s worst mass murders, (look, he has his own Wikipedia page!) has demanded he be acquitted, pleading not guilty by virtue of a sort of perverse heroism. While it’s difficult to fathom how bombing civilians and shooting unarmed young people at a summer camp can possibly be anything but deranged, Breivik has suggested he was defending his homeland against multiculturalism, which he sees as a precursor to an Islamic takeover and the imposition of Sharia law…

…a point of view he apparently shares with Newt Gingrich and several others. But I digress.

Breivik committed murder, a punishable offense in most countries. Among the punishments available in this country is death, at least in thirty-five of fifty states. That number may drop, as Connecticut’s Senate has voted to abolish the death penalty at the beginning of April.  Nonetheless, the Unites States overall remains in the group of countries Amnesty International calls “retentionist”, countries that continue to permit executions. Norway has no death penalty, which means Breivik might either spend a few decades in prison (possibly more, if he’s considered to be dangerous at some future point) or confinement in a psychiatric institution. This is a man who, on the second day of his trial, described his killing spree as a “spectacular sophisticated political act,” one which he’d repeat, mind you.

A self-important, agenda-driven, platform-seeking individual who may not even be technically insane—two initial reports contradict one another—who managed to arm himself to the teeth despite Norway’s strict gun control laws could be back on the streets before he hits his mid-fifties. Meanwhile, taxpayer money will be used to house him.

How does everyone feel about this?

In Norway, some left-leaning intellectuals are hoping Breivik is determined sane, given that he sees his actions as “logical” in light of his extreme ideology. “One has to go to the bottom of the horror – as deep down as it is possible to go,” one civil servant suggested. Others believe that Breivik’s politics must be central to the trial in order to remind Norwegians that Islamophobia is rising throughout Europe. As one English writer living in France noted, “Going about their daily lives there are probably tens of millions of Europeans (and Americans), shocked at Breivik’s actions, who would, just the same, probably agree with the premise that drove him to action: Muslims are a threat to the Western world.” (see earlier note on Gingrich, Newt).

Others hope he’s declared insane, which would allow the courts to sidestep both the circus of a protracted trial and the dram of a defendant requesting death or acquittal in a country where neither is possible.

Most Norwegians, it seems, are not so much captivated by the trial as weary of it less than half way through.  Norway’s second-largest media outlet, Dagbladet, offers a trial-free news option on its website (although it’s not immediately apparent when visiting the tabloid-style homepage with lurid pictures and over-sized typeface).   The UK’s Telegraph reports that one man recommended “They should just lock him up and forget him.”  Other outlets have noted the average citizens’ reluctance to comment…well, except for the civilian judge on the trial who was dismissed after posting on his Facebook page, “the death penalty is the only just outcome of this case.”

Seriously inappropriate.

Speaking of which, here in the United States, we don’t worry about keeping our mouths shut or our opinions to ourselves. Freedom means never letting propriety stand in the way of an argument we feel absolutely has to be made. Thus we have gun control opponents who happily claim Breivik’s ability to get gun’s despite Norway’s strict gun laws is proof that such laws don’t work. On one truly scary website called AmmoLand, one writer declares “These deluded laws disarmed the victims, and completely enabled the perpetrator. That is what ALL ‘gun control’ laws do.” The writer is listed as “Charles Heller, Executive Director, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership,” a title that encapsulates the very essence of paranoid delusion on more levels than I can fathom.

On the subject of the death penalty, we have the associate professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who insists that withholding the death penalty in the case of Breivik reduces the value of human life. On Cal Watchdog, whose mission is “to uncover governmental waste,” the lead article suggests the Breivik trial might imperil a ballot initiative calling for the repeal of the death penalty. The “independent” editorial voice then goes on to remind the reader that “no state can stay naively immune from the realities of ideological terrorism.  Nor can a state hide behind the self-righteousness of banishing the death penalty, if in so doing it unintentionally results in a perverse incentive for mass murder and offering a platform for spreading a murderous ideology.”

And there we have it: another justification for the elevation of the “kill or be killed” doctrine as a logical, justified and entirely effective way to defend, defeat and punish the criminals in our midst. While poor Norway, proud of its tolerant civil society and liberal traditions, must now be subject to the insatiable gaze of a news-starved international media and the highly selective commentaries of the righteously indignant, some of our noisy citizens know what must be done. Ignore the foolish hand-wringers. Banish the outliers. No mercy for evildoers. We must protect ourselves at all costs. To arms!

Just the sort of legacy Anders Breivik was hoping to promote.

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Nikki ~ thanks for this discussion of the case in Norway! I hadn't kept up with all of the stories of the individuals who are using the case to promote their particular agenda, but there are some over-the-top nuts out there who are spinning this story to benefit themselves in what amounts to utterly absurd narratives and points of views!
The insanity continues.
You write well on these very touche' subjects Nikki.
The 'third rail' in American politics is gun ownership.
Good points made, Nikki; however, those who were murdered and their families will never receive true justice or peace. He should be sent out on an ice floe to die so he doesn't steal the taxpayers' money. That would be more just to his victims and his country.
O, how I wish more American Christians would comment on this one and say what they really "believe!" What a clever article, Nikki, excellent. R
I always find it funny when "Religious" advocate violence, killing in the name of Jesus or whomever. Same with churches hating people.

~shaking head~ Hate is just another word for 'I shouldn't be allowed to own a gun!'

~nodding~ Rated!
i don't believe the death penalty is ever justified - or justifiable - as either punishment, deterrent or retribution. Breivik will be imprisoned, i'm sure, for life in norway. what i find most interesting about him is whether he is certifiably mentally ill or, more likely since he's being tried, just a believer in some very scary and crazy stuff.

oh, and i always roll my eyes at the complaint by some that taxpayer dollars are being spent on the guy's board and lodging if the state doesn't kill him. it's hardly the case in the US (and any other country i'm aware of) that prison life is like being put up at the four seasons with gourmet food and a TV/cable package.
I don't much care what his final psych eval says--I know the first two were conflicting. I just want him inside some institution for good.

I'm not sure Nikki if Americans are quite as outspoken as you think they are. Mostly, I'd say American opinion is controlled by religious leaders, institutions, and the mainstream media--and the ideologies that dominate the national conversation.

For all our technical advancements, "group think" is pervasive. Why do you think politicians spend billions to convince voters with TV adds for ten years olds?

Witness it right here on OS. While more and more come to the site to read it, fewer enter into the dialogue than before--even though it is totally at their discretion.

That said, I've been against the death penalty all my life for exactly the reasons Gandhi said. It was around the time he said, "Western civilization is a good idea. It's too bad it doesn't work."
it seems like you're quoting mostly the extremists on all sides. your own opinion is also rather [unnecessarily] veiled in the essay. Im not an advocate of the death penalty but you mention the difficult-to-swallow cost it takes to house an inmate for decades. which is squelched with an execution. so not only is your own position kind of veiled, it seems a little contradictory. the case is a rare anomaly it would seem and I dont think one can draw conclusions about how to run the justice system from that case. moreover, I think the whole argument that breivik was trying to stop multiculturalism turning into shariah law is just madness itself. anyone taking his statement at face value seems would be nearly as insane as he is. its very hard for the public to grasp, but psychopaths do not follow reason, and the reasons they give for their crimes are basically nonsense gibberish ripped from headlines. in this way they sort of channel the collective unconscious and force the public to come to grips with their own innate, suppressed madness. a small )( service. breivik is insane but so is a lot of what has happened to govts around the world after 911. and I dont see that going away after breivik is either locked up or executed, either way.
one might even say-- psychopaths come and go. social madness lives on forever.
It is amazing how many pro life people are pro death penalty.
This is one of those life questions I cannot answer. I have no idea how I react if someone killed someone I love. Great thoughtful post on very difficult questions.
Awesome post Nikki

The masses feed off of hysteria and the world’s powers, both the secular and the pious alike, know this all too well. They have learned to manipulate billions of minds using fear; fear of death, fear of evil, fear of good, fear of being audited by the IRS, fear of one another. Without fear, there would be no need for the politicians, or prophets of the gods.

And that is of course what THEY fear, so the fear will continue and it will house, feed and clothe the killers of the killers and just as frightening; fear will house, feed and clothe the killers of the innocent as well.
1. “These deluded laws disarmed the victims". Um, weren't most of the victims young people who, even in the most pro-gun locations, wouldn't be old enough to own a gun?

2. As for the death penalty: Emotionally I would have no trouble with Breivik being put to death. However, as we have learned, there are a lot of people who have put on Death Row who were in fact innocent. Better to let Breivik live out his years behind bars if it means that we can't mistakenly put an innocent man to death.

Guns and death: two issues where rationality go out the window.
How do I feel about this ?
I'm anti-death penalty unless it involves family, in which case all bets are off, and yes, I see the flaw in that.
In the case of Breivik, he believed himself to be a soldier. You no longer need an army, or even a war, as President Bush made clear, to be a soldier. All bets are off.
Perhaps Breivek should be tried in The Hague.
He said himself the prospect of life-imprisonment was the 'pathetic' option. I'd say give him life-imprisonment.
If I was the father of any of the kids he shot I'd ask for an hour or two alone with him, before they lock him up.
I lean to the lock him up and forget him line of thinking. I don't think I'm morally opposed to the death penalty. Brevik should be locked up forever but if he were in a death penalty country and were executed, I won't feel that a notable wrong had been committed.

But I'm against the death penalty, as criminologists who study the matter are largely in agreement that it doesn't serve as a deterrent and doesn't reduce murder rates. And since every system of justice is fallible, sometimes innocent folks get wrongly convicted. If they're subsequently executed, well, that is certainly committing a notable wrong. So lock him up, throw away the key and give him no more publicity.
The death penalty has never worked and it never will. No one thinks, "Well, I'd kill that person except I would get the death penalty. If it was only life in prison, I'd kill in a New York minute." Either they have no control, or they're crazy or high, or in a mindless rage, or else are sure they will never be caught, so no penalty is a deterrent.

The NRA position is just as absurd. One nut starts shooting in a crowd, and their ideal solution to that is that everyone else pull out a gun and start shooting, too. That should work real well to prevent casualties. In the confusion, everyone shoots those people who seem at the time to be the enemy. How do you decide who the innocents are, when everyone has a gun in their hand?
Morally there's no rational justification for capital punishment. Politically it's all about the state asserting its power in the most primal way. I've just started reading The Hunger Games. It's all about keeping the proletariat in line. Studies show it's not a deterrent, but who can say what creature hasn't at least learned to think twice before committing murder. If nothing else, it might breed a cleverer class of criminal, a bi9gger pool of talent from which to draw politicians and corporate executives.
Nikki, thanks for a fine piece that asks some very difficult questions.
It is difficult knowing what to do with the murderer's rationale for his actions. I agree it should be scrutinized closely and in trial a counter argument should be driven into the public consciousness.

I don't believe in any state's right to terminate human life in the case of civil law. I do support the stripping of the offender's rights while incarcerated.
I am a progressive pro life Liberal which means I am against the death penalty because if you're going to be "pro life" you need to include being against the death penalty. With that said, the guy is dangerous and needs to be locked up for life.....
As I commented on a post by Jonathan a couple of weeks ago, I'm adamantly opposed to the death penalty. It's nothing more than state-sanctioned revenge, and hollow at that.

I was first exposed to the hypocrisy of the legal system as a teenager, when Steven Truscott (look him up) was convicted and sentenced to death at age 14 for a murder he didn't commit. I knew then he was innocent, because I listened to some of his friends, whose testimony was ignored or discounted during the trial by cops, judge and jury thirsty for a scapegoat.

Since then, I've added the names Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard to my pantheon of wrongfully convicted Canadians who at one time would have been executed.

Far as I'm concerned, Blackstone was right.
Where do you find the aplomb to write of such maddening topics with such grace? I am whole-heartedly with you in being against the death penalty. No exceptions. I believe this stance is essential to our humanity. (Not that I think those who disagree are any less human.)
Now as far as the guns go...I don't have your calmness so I'll keep my trap shut.
Yes, but keep in mind that the U.S. has more religious whackjobs than any other country. Ironic perhaps, given that you'd think they would have some semblance of mercy, but unfortunately they tend to take the Bible literally and that novel does contain the words "an eye for an eye."
I think there's a huge leap from the visceral emotional want to punish (kill) someone who commits such an outrageous act and the reasoned justification for actually doing so. The US is a country of indulged individual desires, so it's not hard to see how personal belief becomes public action. As you say -- exactly what Breivik promoted.
Luminous: I try to see the irony and go from there
Kim: Honest-I appreciate that
John: "that novel" *chuckle*
Bell: "indulged individual desires" - ain't THAT the truth!
Ben: as you've noted, group think doesn't allow for nuance
Boomer: "hysteria" is the operative word
Matt: so precisely on target with your comment, I read it twice.
Bonergis1: as usual, you add to and illuminate any discussion
Difficult questions and a provocative essay. I've no answers, just more questions.
Nikki, our death penalty is also preventing justice from being served. If a person is under a potential death penalty and has the resources to get to another country, it is highly likely that the person will spend the rest of their days dodging justice.

This is because other nations have problems with our death penalty and they have problems with our abuse of the death penalty.

What shameful state have we come to? Congrats on the EP!
Thanks for this. I'm also impressed at how even though Breivik's actual actions are beyond comprehension, his ideas about Islam and immigration are utterly mainstream. The judges need to tread cautiously.

I'm against death penalty, he should suffer in jail....and live with his actions. I agree with you, particularly the last line-- he did get what he wanted at an extreme price.
Norway rules...

Nikki - next time you feel like posting, try the alternate site lorianne set up for us - Our Salon. You don't have to fight the spam.