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Icy civility at Oslo horror trial grips world

When the trial of Anders Behring Breivik started, prosecutors and court-appointed psychiatrists lined up to shake his hand, smiling. One psychiatrist even bowed. The killer of 77 people smiled back.
/ Source: Reuters

When the trial of Anders Behring Breivik started, prosecutors and court-appointed psychiatrists lined up to shake his hand, smiling. One psychiatrist even bowed. The killer of 77 people smiled back.

Few Norwegians blinked an eye.

Welcome to a mass-murder trial, Norwegian style, a courtroom drama combining one of the worst peacetime atrocities seen in Europe since World War Two with dead-pan politeness that speaks volumes about Norway's calm self-confidence in the own fairness of its own society and judicial system.

Against this Scandinavian reserve and yearning to avoid confrontation, the gunman's clenched-fist salute looked surreal and out of place at his first court appearance on Monday. Day two on Tuesday proceeded with the same ice-cool civility.

"Are you near your conclusion, Mr. Breivik?" the judge asked the self-confessed killer as he expounded for over an hour on the threat of Islam, Europe's multicultural "hell" and why he shot dozens of teenagers last July on an island retreat.

"Six more pages," he replied.

The dialogue was repetitive. The judge, polite, pleading with Breivik to wind up. The defendant, civil in return: "One more page." For viewers around the world familiar with tetchy gavel-banging from the bench in televised U.S. trials, the judge's patience is startling. As Breivik meandered into praise for Japanese and South Korean political and social models, she said evenly: "I ask you to limit yourself to Norwegian issues."

The trial has been touted in Norway as a way to bring emotional "closure" to a country proud of its tolerance and determined not to let the threat of attacks destroy its open society. But it also has observers, especially foreigners, wondering if Norway's legal system - which can formally impose a maximum penalty of just 21 years in prison - is being manipulated by a cunning madman to broadcast his racist message.

At times during the courtroom broadcasts, some have felt echoes of the plays of Norway's great dramatist Henrik Ibsen, where comfortable daily routines are shattered by deep crisis and emotional maelstroms break through the icy veneer of pious, 19th-century bourgeois life.

Breivik himself, his gaze burning, in dark suit and newly bearded under the chin, has the air of a preacher from Ibsen.

Yet the 21st-century technology of social media, automatic weapons and high explosives with which he attacked the seemingly peaceful society that produced him bears distinct echoes of the dystopian new Nordic crime writers like Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and others who have gripped a vast global audience.


On the trial's first day, the state prosecutor hardly flinched as she read out a litany of the dead in such graphic detail that Norwegian broadcasters bleeped some details out. Breivik listened impassively, checking the indictment on his desk, a grim laundry list of killings.

Almost the only emotion to have bubbled to the surface in the trial so far was when Breivik choked back tears during a showing of his own Internet propaganda video, including pictures of mediaeval Crusaders and a musical accompaniment.

A "very touching film", he called it. "I was thinking that my country and my race, they're dying."

Up until that moment, Breivik had sat impassively as the prosecutor accused him of dozens of head-shots.

There are no U.S.-style trial theatricals here, no lawyers strutting the courtroom like a stage. The Norwegian prosecutor sits as she questions Breivik, polite and solicitous, almost at times as if speaking to a child.

There have been no outbursts from the victims' families in the public gallery, no baying for revenge, just quiet stoicism.

"This could have been all completely different in another national context, with demonstrations in the streets, vigils," said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.

But Norwegians were putting their faith in a system they believe in: "In Norway, there is a long tradition of deference to authority and respect for institutions," said Goodwin, who has studied the country. "And there is a desire for closure."

Norway has generally refused to abandon its culture of light security after July's attacks. There is little sign of a ballooning security industry of scanners and guards seen in the United States and elsewhere in western Europe.

In the days after the attacks, the prevailing message was one of calm. The prime minister called for more openness and democracy. One Tweet from a Norwegian girl came to symbolize Norway's response - "If one man can create that much hate, you can only imagine how much love we as a togetherness can create."

In the courtroom, a few hundred meters from where Breivik set off a car bomb outside the government headquarters last July to distract attention from his subsequent shooting rampage, there is little evidence of the heated debate seen in the United States over trials of suspected al Qaeda leaders on home soil.

The public gallery seating 200 or so interested parties and journalists sat patiently through Breivik's testimony on Tuesday, betraying little emotion even when he promised "rivers of blood" across Europe as others like him take action.


"We are a stoic people," said John Hestnes, who leads a support group for survivors of the Oslo bomb blast.

"We don't shout out or break into tears about this and that. What we think inside ourselves is another matter. But this is a dignified courtroom and that's how it should be. We think it is important that he gets to say what he wants."

Respect here is the name of the game. Some survivors sport badges saying, politely: "No interviews, please."

The specially built courtroom is modern, equipped with classically Nordic blond wood panels and subdued colors. Police let visitors bring in drinks. They seem unsure of rules.

Many Norwegians remain convinced Breivik should be allowed to give evidence, despite the fact he has already admitted to the killings. He has pleaded not guilty to murder, however, arguing he was defending Norway against Islam and immigration.

There are, though, little glowing embers of repressed anger, now and then. Survivors, and relatives of the dead, fidgeted in the courtroom during his first day of testimony on Tuesday.

But rather than talking out loud, many were turning for comfort to the silent discourse of the mobile phone text message: "I got messages the whole time," said Hestnes.

"They are saying, 'This is horrible. This is painful.'"