On July 22, 2011, 32-year-old Anders Breivik calmly slaughtered 77 children and adults in a meticulously planned and bloody barrage of bombings and shootings purposed with stamping out the alleged corruptions of Islam, feminism, Zionism, Marxism, multiculturalism, and other evils destroying European civilization. He was found guilty and accorded Norway’s maximum sentence of “preventive detention” in August of this year. This means he must spend at least 10 years in prison or 21 years (100 days for each count of murder) there at most unless he’s deemed unfit for release after that time and detained longer or even for the remainder of his life. Most experts believe that he will never get out.
One might expect the unapologetic perpetrator of such monstrous mass murder to, at best, languish in a cramped cell with spartan accommodations and endure rough handling from his jailers. Instead, he lounges in digs many would envy. His cell looks less like a dungeon than an Ikea display of optimal small-space habitation, and he even had full use of a computer in his comparatively spacious, three-room quarters right up until being sentenced for his crimes. After his computer was removed and he waited for a replacement electric typewriter, he had to use a flexible (to prevent its deployment as a weapon) rubber “nightmare” pen that cramped his hand to write out tortuous treatises defending his murderous mayhem, and he didn’t like it.
In fact, in a scolding, 27-page letter to prison officials he presented a stinging litany of complaints about the “inhumane” indignities he was forced to endure including not only the rubber pen, which he called “an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism,” but also the routine censoring of his mail and phone calls, strip searches, cold coffee, “unwelcoming” prison guards, noisy fellow inmates, and having to wait as long as forty minutes for guards to switch on and off his TV and lights each day from controls located outside his cell.
Had Breivik committed his ghastly crimes in just about any other part of the world he would no doubt have far more to complain about, were he even left alive to complain, but he’s in Norway, and Norway has one of the most lenient justice systems in the world, based, as it is, on the lofty principle of “restorative justice” aimed at healing everyone affected by a crime, including the perpetrator, and arguably remarkably effective at preventing violence in prison and recidivism upon release.
Yet, even Norwegian justice is grounded on the conventional belief that, except in very rare cases of obvious insanity, people commit crimes of their own free will and can therefore be held responsible for them, and Breivik was adjudged sane and responsible for his atrocities. More specifically, he was judged not to have a psychotic condition that caused him to enact his murder spree, and he was consequently sent to prison rather than a psychiatric facility. But what if Breivik didn’t have free will and couldn’t help but do what he did on that infamously “Bloody Friday” in July? How so, given the fact that he very deliberately planned and perpetrated his massacre? How could he not have been free if he wanted to kill all those people and was able to carry out his homicidal intentions with chilling efficacy? Because, says philosopher and free will scholar Robert Kane, being free to do what one wills is only a “surface freedom” and not necessarily “free will” as philosophers understand it. That is, if one is free to do what one wills but is determined by causes one doesn’t control to will what one does and to act out that will, how is that free will? As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in his recent book Free Will, “free will” is the belief that “(1) Each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) We are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present,” and, says Harris, the notion that we have this magical capacity is undermined by a growing body of scientific research showing that our thoughts, choices, and actions inevitably originate from interacting physical, biological, psychological, social, and cultural conditions of which we aren’t fully conscious and over which we exert incomplete control. And if this is true of all of us, it’s certainly true of people such as Anders Breivik who commit criminal atrocities. For as Sarah Lucas recently wrote in the Humanist, if we apply Harris’ argument to the Breivik case, we conclude that “had you been born with Anders Breivik’s genes, grown up in the same environment, been dealt the same life experiences and woken up on that July 22 morning with an identical brain, you would have committed his crimes (after all, you would have been him).”
Sam Harris’ argument is controversial, to be sure, but what if he’s right and people can’t help but commit the crimes they do given their nature when they commit them? How should society deal with them? Should it ensconce them in almost palatial prisons like Breivik’s or subject them to harsher treatment? And if the latter, how much harsher should that treatment be? Many would argue that justice isn’t only about inflicting upon the perpetrator what he or she deserves but also providing society what it needs to heal after the crime. In Breivik’s case, it’s difficult to see how Norwegian society would rest satisfied with Breivik’s present circumstances and readily heal from the terrible trauma he inflicted. Many would argue that justice is also about deterring future crimes, and, again, it’s difficult to see how Breivik’s cozy living arrangements will deter other dementedly xenophobic souls bent on violently rescuing European civilization from ruin at the hands of barbarian invaders from without and ideological traitors from within. Moreover, what if Harris is wrong and Breivik freely chose to murder all those people. Was justice served in his case? That is, even if Breivik spends the rest of his life in prison, did he reap the punishment he deserves, and will his punishment deter others from committing similarly egregious crimes and provide Norwegian society with the healing and stabilizing sense that justice was served? The horrendous case of Anders Breivik raises pressing questions about the nature of justice, free will, and responsibility more than most, and we would do well to spend more time contemplating them.