A year ago today a Norwegian man named Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Sweden. The attack was well planned, involving the bombing of several government buildings, followed by a machine gun massacre on Utoya Island, where members of the Swedish Labor party’s youth league were meeting.
Breivik published his 1,500 page manifesto on the internet prior to the massacre. He stands accused of many things, but not a lack of canny. Breivik knew that the atrocity would give him a platform. Out of (admittedly morbid) curiosity I read a few snippets of the manifesto. What compels a human being to do such a thing? As it turns out, Breivik is a crazed Islamaphobe who sees himself as a crusader against the dark skinned hordes banging at Europe’s gates. The Swedish Labor party’s youth league was the perfect target: not only is it avowedly anti-racist, many of its members are ethnic minorities.
A couple days ago in Colorado we had our own massacre. Americans are more used to this type of thing. Our secondary school math and science scores may be slipping, but we still lead the world in automatic-weapon fueled tragedies. Again I find myself wrestling with that familiar morbid curiosity. What was on James Holt’s mind? What compels a human being to do such a thing?
Sweden doesn’t have the death penalty. As someone ideologically opposed to capital punishment, cases like Breivik’s and Holt’s grate against my convictions. Breivik’s youngest victim was Sharidyn Svebakk Bohn – a 14 years old kid who chose to spend a few days of his summer with a liberal, anti-racist youth league. Breivik attacked tolerance. He attacked reason. This type of crime cries out for biblical type revenge. Seeing Breivik swing at the end of a rope would make me smile.
Breivik’s views make me want revenge all the more. Article 29 of the Swedish Penal Code includes a penalty-enhancement provision for crimes motivated by bias against the victim's race, color, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or "other similar circumstance" of the victim. I would imagine government prosecutors in Sweden are tempted to hit Breivik with every applicable law on the books, including (maybe especially) Article 29. He won’t be killed, but let’s do everything we can to make sure this bastard never walks the streets again. Should Swedish prosecutors include Article 29 in their list of charges?
Hate Crime legislation is a strange thing when you stop to think about it. It’s the notion that a crime is worse if committed against someone because of their membership in a particular (usually ethnic, racial or sexual) group. It’s the idea that beating up someone is more awful if the thought, “I fucking hate fags/niggers/towelheads” crosses your mind before you throw a punch. Are Breivik’s right-wing, white nationalistic views a crime? No. Repugnant – yes. A crime – no.
Colorado does have the death penalty. The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1977, but the law is still on the books. People closer to the right on the political spectrum are much more comfortable with retributive type justice than those on the left are. I formed my opinion about capital punishment at the age of 12 when I read a quote attributed to the prosecutor in the famed Scottsboro case: “Guilty or not, let’s get rid of these niggers.” I must have stared at that sentence for a full minute. It was the first time in my life I truly understood why I should always remain suspicious of my government. It took me many years to realize that not only is this view compatible with patriotism, it is the bedrock of it.
In my gut it would be satisfying to know that Holmes and Breivik are spending the rest of their natural lives in jam-packed, dank, rape pens. Maybe hate crime legislation would help guarantee that. Maybe not. Either way, in these cases the end does not justify the means: these murderers should spend the rest of their lives in jail because of what they did, not what they were thinking about. The notion of governments prosecuting people because of their thoughts (no matter how repugnant) should give us all pause.
After police finish de-booby trapping Holmes’s apartment we’ll hear more about what was on his mind. He might turn out to be a left-wing psychopath. Or maybe he’ll be a right-wing psychopath. Maybe neither. Chances are his views will make us want revenge all the more. Whatever we find out about this sick individual in the next couple days, we mustn’t forget that what he stands accountable for is what he did. Not what he was thinking about.