Now that the smoke has cleared and we know that Friday’s attacks in Norway were committed by a Norwegian ultra-nationalist, the inevitable excited discussions about his punishment have begun. The first thing to note here is that this question, while it is certainly being asked in workplace lunchrooms all over the Western world, is the exclusive business of Norwegians. They and they alone suffered through Anders Breivik’s acts, and so it is up to them and them alone to determine what they will do about it. You will therefore not hear me complain regardless of whether they choose to bring back medieval punishment for Anders Breivik or let him go free.
There is, however, a particular pattern to discussions around crime and punishment following any heinous and well-publicized crime, and of which Breivik is a useful case study. Water cooler judiciaries the world over tend to become frustrated with a judicial system that is cumbersome, slow, and ultimately unsatisfying for those looking for revenge. “We should just lock them up and throw away the key”, “Let’s show them exactly the same mercy they showed their victims”, or “Some people just don’t deserve a fair trial” are common sentiments in such discussions. People like Breivik, bent on using violence to undermine our social institutions have a funny way of inspiring others to abandon those same institutions.
I am just as vulnerable to this horrified outrage as anybody else. I wouldn’t have it any other way; I believe that the primal impulse for revenge in the face of such atrocities is central to the empathy that keeps us human. But that does not mean that such an impulse should be followed. The desire for revenge is, to me, an instinct to be recognized and acknowledged and even fostered, but never indulged. My reasons for making every effort, both in my personal and political capacity, to avoid pursuing revenge are pretty cliched. We don’t want to sink to the level of the monsters we presume to punish. Killing the murderer won’t bring their victims back. There’s no evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent. An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. You’ve probably heard it all before, so the discussion of my personal beliefs about criminal justice will not be all that interesting.
My thoughts on the matter extend past there, however. Even if I had none of the aforementioned scruples, and I were interested in punishing Breivik so as to get maximum revenge on behalf of his victims, I would still not advocate the death penalty. The death penalty is actually quite ineffective as a means of revenge against the culprits of the most heinous crimes. To understand why, it is important to note that most of the worst crimes in recent memory have been committed in the name of ideology. September 11, the London train bombing, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and now Breivik’s rampage all have nothing whatsoever to do with the rational self-interest of the perpetrator, and everything to do with an attempt to re-make a nation according to their values.
To kill a person who is sufficiently intoxicated by their ideology to engage in mass-murder is unlikely to have a whole lot of impact on them. Sure, they might be a little bit afraid, but the courage of one’s convictions can make it very easy to accept death. When Osama Bin Laden was shot by Seal Team 6, he believed until his very last conscious moment that he was serving his god, and that he was on his way to paradise. The death penalty would likely have the identical effect on Breivik who by all indications is surprised to be alive even now. If he were to be killed, then he would spend his last moments happy in his delusion that he is going down in history as the martyr who started the European Nationalist revolution.
If you are of a vindictive mind and you want to punish people like Breivik, then here is what I propose instead: let him live. Don’t physically harm him in any way. Lock him up for the rest of his life in a prison where he will be treated with a reasonable amount of dignity, and let him watch as precisely nothing comes of his attack. Let him spend his whole life in prison while he is slowly forced to accept not only that his glorious revolution will never happen, but that the grave existential threat he saw will also fail to materialize. Let him gradually realize that he committed an atrocity and committed himself to life in prison for no good reason. That is a far worse fate than what will seem to him to be a quick and glorious death.
Or not. Maybe you’re more compassionate like me, and you’re more interested in just ensuring that Breivik is kept somewhere safely away from re-offense. Either way, my point is not only that the death penalty does not make sense for any reason. It is not neither practically useful nor ethically justified, and for all the most heinous crimes, execution is not even a very good form of revenge.