Terror on Trial

This week marked the beginning of the trial of Anders Breivik, charged with the killing of 77 people in a bombing and shooting spree last July in Norway. The attacks, in Oslo and nearby Utøya Island, attacked a government office and a youth camp run by the left-leaning Norwegian Labor Party. Every day of the trial has come up with a new revelation or twist from the admitted killer. He has said that he does not respect the authority of the courts, claimed self-defense for the killings in response to the Islamification of Europe, and railed against the multiculturalism of the Norwegian left, against which he wrote a 1500-page manifesto. He has claimed that he should either be acquitted or be given the death penalty, which is not a punishment in Norway. He has said that he is part of an anti-Muslim group called the Knights Templar (which doesn’t exist), admitted to years of playing video games in his mom’s basement, and intended to behead former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

He has said a lot of things and voiced a lot of ideas.

He will probably say a lot more inflammatory and possibly hurtful things before the ten-week trial runs its course. His word count will be thousands. At the end of the trial though, only one word choice will matter: prison or psychiatric ward? Breivik will spout his vitriol and then proceed directly to jail, do not pass go; do not collect $200 of Norwegian welfare benefits. Even though it is sad for some that Norwegian prisons are the nicest in the world, Breivik, his extremism, and the hurt he caused will slowly fade from public memory after the trial’s momentary eruption of his bombast.

While the practice of letting murderers on trial give long and rambling speeches is a little strange, and something that would be unheard of in the United States, I respect the Norwegians for sticking by their system of law and going ahead with the trial in a normal fashion. Breivik, who was behind one of the most terrible atrocities in the history of Norway, will not be given special treatment and, due to the lack of the death penalty, will not be given a death that can be remotely construed as glorious and martyr-like. Sure, the courthouse in Oslo is saturated with media, but media attention always fades, and the incident will not drag on for years.

This is exactly what did not happen in the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

After Barack Obama’s protestation against and signing of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2011, the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others at Guantánamo Bay charged with the 9/11 terror attacks was transferred out of civilian court in lower Manhattan, due to a provision in the law. Citizens were worried about security and about the possibility for KSM to spout propaganda, much like Breivik is now doing.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the detainees would be tried in a military commission at Guantánamo and that the death penalty would be used. It remains to be seen whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other detainees will plead guilty.

Breivik and KSM are both terrorists that committed horrible acts against humanity. One of them, Breivik, is being given a fair trial that will be done in 9 weeks. The saga of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has already gone on for years. As Max Fisher points out in The Atlantic, Norway’s criminal justice system is now showing off to the world, and America’s, which also guarantees many rights to the accused, never got the chance. America could also possibly execute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for his crime, inspiring more hatred.

Part of the difference in the two cases may be the nature of the crime. Breivik is easy to portray as one pale crazy guy with a gun, while those behind the 9/11 attacks are, of course, part of the massive monolith that is religious extremism. America is not currently prosecuting a group of men. They are trying to prosecute Terror. You can’t prosecute an idea, though if you stick with the War on Terror tag, doing it in a military tribunal probably makes sense.

But there is no monolith of religious extremism that stems from an ideology in any religion or region. There are only a few radicals. Trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others in a civilian court would have supported the idea that these men are few radicals on the absolute fringe of their own Islamic society and the world at large. Instead, trying them in a military commission reinforces the idea that the United States is at war with some ideological enemy terrorist army instead of a small group of crazy people.

Norway doesn’t say it is in a war with terrorism or right-wing nationalism and Norway knows they couldn’t kill them even if they wanted to. Norway is sticking by its societal values of a fair trial. Norway is prosecuting one twisted man who likes to ramble about ridiculous and horrible ideas and will let him ramble.

Soon after the trial though, that man, Anders Breivik, and whatever hateful comments he says will not linger in an extralegal limbo, but will fade away alone in prison.