By Max Fisher:
As an American, or maybe just as a moral human being, it’s hard not to feel appalled, even outraged, that Norwegian far-right monster Anders Breivik only received 21 years in prison for his attacks last year, including a bombing in Oslo and a cold-blooded shooting spree, which claimed 77 lives. That’s just under 100 days per murder. The decision, reached by the court’s five-member panel, was unanimous. He will serve out his years (which can be extended) in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room, and “Ikea-style furniture.” The New York Times quoted a handful of survivors and victims’ relatives expressing relief and satisfaction at the verdict. It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s still jarring to see Norwegians welcoming this light sentence.Norway’s criminal justice system is, obviously, quite distinct from that of, say, the U.S.; 21 years is the maximum sentence for anything less severe than war crimes or genocide. Still, it’s more than that: the entire philosophy underpinning their system is radically different. I don’t have an answer for which is better. I doubt anyone does. But Americans’ shocked response to the Breivik sentence hints at not just how different the two systems are, but how deeply we may have come to internalize our understanding of justice, which, whatever its merits, doesn’t seem to be as universally applied as we might think.The American justice system, like most of those in at least the Western world, is built on an idea called retributive justice. In very simplified terms (sorry, I’m not a legal scholar), it defines justice as appropriately punishing someone for an act that’s harmful to society. Our system does include other ideas: incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to rejoin society, and deterring other potential criminals. At its foundation, though, retributive justice is about enforcing both rule of law and more abstract ideas of fairness and morality. Crimes are measured by their damage to society, and it’s society that, working through the court system, metes out in-turn punishment. Justice is treated as valuable and important in itself, not just for its deterrence or incapacitative effects. In a retributive system, the punishment fits the crime, and 21 years in a three-room cell doesn’t come close to fitting Breivik’s 77 premeditated murders.Norway doesn’t work that way. Although Breivik will likely be in prison permanently — his sentence can be extended — 21 years really is the norm even for very violent crimes. Themuch-studied Norwegian system is built on something called restorative justice. Proponents of this system might argue that it emphasizes healing: for the victims, for the society, and, yes, for the criminal him or herself. Sounds straightforward enough, but you might notice that there’s nothing in there about necessarily punishing the criminal, and in fact even takes his or her needs into account.