It's the outrage du la semaine: Twitter, Facebook and mainstream news sites remain a virtual maelstrom of people who are beside themselves because Norway reportedly has a maximum prison sentence of "only 21 years." In holier than thou fashion, many of these folks believe that they know best how Norway should treat Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old man charged with killing at least 76 people.
@kegill The notion that mass murder could have a max 21 year term with an ill defined extension is nonsensical.
Frustrated, I responded:
@crosswiredmind respectfully, if you are not a Norwegian citizen, I do not believe your opinion of those laws, mores is relevant
Why did I feel frustrated? In short, media ineptitude combined with moral certitude.
Almost every media mention of Norway's sentencing system that I have read has failed to acknowledge that life in prison is possible in Norway through a process called containment or custody. It's the reason I spent my Sunday morning writing approximately 800 words on the subject, while concurrently talking with Norwegians on Twitter.
Some articles reference containment but the headline misleads. For example, NewsMax shouts Norway Shooter's Maximum Penalty: 21 Years. FOX News rewrites the same AFP story with this headline: Norway's 21-Year Maximum Penalty Sparks Outcry After Terror Attacks That Killed 76. In both cases, the mention of extended sentence is deep into the story.
Contrast that with this straightforward (although slightly misleading) reporting from ... China's Xinhua News Agency:
While 21 years is the stiffest sentence a Norwegian judge can hand down, a special sentence can be given to prisoners deemed a danger to society. Under such a sentence, an initial sentence of 21-years may be renewed indefinitely.
Under Norwegian law, Mr Breivik faces a maximum of 21 years in jail if convicted, although that sentence can be extended if a prisoner is deemed a threat to the public.
This concept of containment is used in Washington State to detain, indefinitely, sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences. Specifically, "commitment petitions are filed annually on roughly 10 to 15 percent of all the Level 3 offenders upon their release from prison." Rather than being something "foreign" or incapable of offering social protection, containment is a legal concept in use in the U.S.
Then there is the MSM columnist who references containment but does so incorrectly. At SFGate.com Debra J. Saunders writes that only one 5-year extension is possible (not true) and goes on to assert, "If convicted, he can expect to be a free man in his 50s."
Wow. She can look into the future and determine that those Norwegian judges absolutely would see fit to release him after one 5-year extension. There's a bit of snarkiness in that column as well: "Our Betters in Europe got rid of capital punishment decades ago." Yes, Ms. Saunders: no other "civilized" country executes more people per year than the good old U.S.A. Your point? It's not deterrence, is it, because U.S. data do not show that the death penalty deters crime.
By the way, it was also SFGate that ran a Bloomberg piece on Saturday that contained incomplete information (error by omission):
He could receive 21 years in prison, Norway's toughest punishment, Deputy Oslo Police Chief Roger Andresen said yesterday.
Saunders is directly countered by Preben Walle, a Norwegian who tweeted extensively after "Friday's events":
@kegill I can clear up a few things: It's not 21 years per murder, it's collectively. But, he will be subject to containment, and (cont) will serve his whole life in prison.
@kegill I think you've shown that you understand the Norwegian thought-process with your writing, I agree with most of what you have written
Maybe that's because I spent a summer in Norway during my college career. Maybe it's because I have developed a cultural relativistic approach when trying to understand "others."
Methodologically, cultural relativism means that while the anthropologist is in the field, he or she temporarily suspends ("brackets") their own esthetic and moral judgements. The aim is to obtain a certain degree of "understanding" or "empathy" with the foreign norms and tastes. Morally and politically, cultural relativism means that we respect other cultures and treat them as "as good as" one's own. [...]
During fieldwork, it is essential to bracket one's own values and control one's spontaneous reactions to a number of exotic phenomena. If one does not, one will simply not learn to understand the people under study. Without such understanding, it will be impossible to establish mutual trust, which is the precondition of entering into dialogue with them. Only through such dialogue may change be attempted. Without dialogue, change is impossible. What is true of fieldwork is, in this case, also true of normal, practical life, where respect and trust form the basis of all productive relations.
Or perhaps my rejection of the moral certitude that I see expressed like this -- "21 years is not enough for such a cold [blooded] bastard. He executed people, should we not justly repay him?" -- is the philosophy of laissez faire extended beyond economics.
Laissez faire: "let (people) do (as they choose)".
I'm not willing to tell citizens of another country -- one that has had "no reason to keep people in prison for life" because its crime rate is among the lowest in Europe -- how they should design their criminal justice system. I would be unwilling to do so even if my criminal justice system looked superior on paper, and that's certainly not the case here. Norway's crime and murder rates are well below those of the U.S..
In the aftermath of a tragedy that surpasses that of 9-11 in per capita scope and that carries the additional burden of having been a home-grown affair, I am unwilling to either second-guess their justice system or tell them, indirectly, that they are wrong, stupid or naive. It is not my place. And neither, I believe, is it yours.