It is a year since Norway’s tragedy of July 22, 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and injured hundreds. It was worse than many of the criminal actions and terrorist attacks that have been experienced in Pakistan. Breivik detonated a car bomb in the centre of Oslo outside the Prime Minister’s office where eight people were killed and many injured, with a war-like damage to buildings. Then he travelled by car for an hour to Utøya Island where the Labour Party, the major political party in Norway, held its summer camp for youth. Breivik shot and killed in cold blood 69 people, until the police eventually came and arrested him.

Breivik said afterward that he had expected that the police would shoot and kill him. Instead he was apprehended to face the law. First, a team of psychiatrists and Breivik’s own defence lawyer said that he was insane; hence, he should not be charged in court. Other specialists and the general public objected strongly. A new team of psychiatrists evaluated Breivik and decided that he was not insane and could stand trial. Breivik himself says he is not insane!

During the 10-week trial in court, which ended a month ago, psychiatrists watched Breivik every minute to evaluate if he was a very sick, insane man, or “just” an outrageous criminal. The court’s verdict is expected on August 24. In Norway, there is no capital punishment and 21 years imprisonment is the longest time any criminal will serve. However, if a person is considered dangerous, additional time will be added, which will include constant supervision of the person outside prison, or even in prison, for another 5-10 years, or longer. And then, if a person is indeed considered insane, after all, he may be transferred to psychiatric care, where he will stay for as long as his illness lasts.

In Breivik’s case, it is my opinion that it is unlikely that he will ever be entirely free. There is room for interpretation of the law, allowing his prolonged imprisonment, or if psychiatrists decide that he needs to be given mental care, he will be kept in an institution for life. In any country, and indeed in a vibrant democracy like Norway, there will continue to be extensive public debate about the case irrespective of the court’s decision.

Serious and unusual cases like the Breivik’s mass murders are debated in the public arena day in and day out, month after month. A variety of people participate: lay and learned, specialists and ordinary people, wise men and women, and not so wise ones. Thousands of articles have already been written and more will appear. There will be more TV and radio debates, articles in professional journals, dissertations at universities, books written, and endless opinion pieces in the daily and popular press. A while ago, the Public Broadcasting Council (Kringkastingsraadet) expressed concern because they thought there was too much focus on the case (which could have a negative impact on people, and take away attention from other important issues in society).

I have read numerous articles and short essays in the Norwegian newspapers about the Breivik case. Here, I will only mention two articles, notably one by Hanna Mollan in “Vaart Land”, a Christian daily, and one by Per Olav Reinton in “Dagbladet”, the largest liberal daily in the country. They are both social scientists and experts in humanitarian aid, peace research and media issues. They warn us against making Breivik into just a mad man. They say that he is a product of the society he lived in, but we do not like to admit it. It would have been so much easier to write him off as crazy.

Mollan, who last year worked with humanitarian aid in Pakistan, followed part of the court proceedings and she claimed that Breivik was touched by the questions asked; he was not the insensitive and cold criminal that the media and many politicians had portrayed him.

Breivik belongs to a limited group of extremists, who analyse issues from strange perspectives. But it is a fact that some unhinged youth sometimes develop their own ideas far outside the mainstream society. They may not be insane, just a bit strange, and very few of them will become criminals. Breivik was against the large influx of foreigners to Europe and Norway, especially people from far away, indeed Muslims. He used terms such as “taking Norway back to the Norwegians before it is too late”, i.e. before Norway and Europe would be ruled by immigrants.

Obviously, this was a twisted thinking. In Norway, the immigrants are just about 10 percent of the country’s population, and Muslims are still fewer. Yet, Breivik, and a tiny group of other extreme rightwing Norwegians, believe (or say they believe) that immigrants might “take over and rule Norway”. Breivik said after his arrest that what he did was terrible, but that somebody had to do it, notably sound the alarm to reduce or stop foreign immigration to Norway. He saw the Labour Party, and the young men and women attending the summer camp, who would be future leaders, as misguided enemies of the indigenous Norwegians. Perhaps the outlandish opinions that Breivik held had developed in his head because modern Western societies have fewer strong common religious, moral and social values? If that is the case, maybe multiculturalism is questionable, maybe we need one strong mainstream culture and have openness to others, without being nihilistic?

In a way, Breivik, in his own world of thinking, started a war. I would like to remind us all that wars are also crazy and terrible, and the only defence for decisions about war is that they are usually not decided just by one or a few individuals, but by a larger group of people and countries. As a pacifist myself, though, I would claim that wars are wrong and that we can make certain comparisons with terrorist attacks and Breivik’s actions. Terrorist attacks are very bad, but wars affect many more people with much larger numbers of victims. This does not make Breivik’s actions less terrible; it makes many other actions, which we accept or justify, as terrible.

The other Norwegian writer I mentioned above is Per Olav Reinton. In his article in “Dagbladet” a few months ago, he discusses Breivik and his extremist ideas as part of a post-war tradition in Europe. They are outlandish, but they are part of our history, too, he says. Again, the writer finds it simplistic to claim that Breivik was just a mad man.

Neither Mollan, nor Reinton discuss whether Breivik’s actions could have been averted. Could he have been towed into mainstream society, away from his twisted and lonely thoughts, before the disaster happened? Yes, because it is a fact that he lived a lonely and difficult life, with childhood and family ties that lacked intimacy and normalcy. Should the experts in a country like Norway, one of the most advanced welfare societies in the world, with social and psychological services at all levels, have discovered that Breivik needed help?

Maybe, it is easy to ask such questions in hindsight. Yet, I believe there were shortcomings in the school system when Breivik was not given special help, and later, too. There were shortcomings in the intelligence system. We should remember that until Breivik committed his heinous crimes, he was the “victim”, he needed help, so that the actions could have been avoided, saving the perpetrator and the many, many victims, their family and friends and the society at large.

The July 22 Commission, appointed by the Norwegian Prime Minister, has looked into these and many other issues, especially related to the concrete response when the tragedy had happened. The five men and five women in the Commission, with a similarly large Secretariat, will submit its final report on August 13. It will form an important document for further analysis and possibly also help avoid similar tragedies in future.

Last week on July 20, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, wrote an article in the International Herald Tribune entitled “Learning from Norway’s tragedy”. He emphasised that the immediate response by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the government was to argue for more democracy and openness, not less, as can so easily happen after such tragedies. I assume this was not spontaneous, but planned response to be applied if terrorist attacks happened in Norway. And I believe that it was, indeed, the right response. Is it followed up in practice? In many fields, I think it is! But I am not sure! I think we will have to wait and see! Støre’s article does not include any operational guidelines for Norway’s response domestically and abroad, such as educational programmes in schools and for the public etc. In Pakistan, we would like to learn from Norway - and we would also like Norway to learn from us!

As soon as the 22 July Commission report is released and the sentencing of Breivik has taken place, both in mid-August, we should be prepared for a major debate about extremist crime, terror and tragedy, not only in Norway, but also in Pakistan and in other countries. We must go deeper into the causes than what we have done. The Norwegians are on the right cause, but there is need for more concrete and specific response.

n    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.

    Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com