'Gentle Justice' Meets Mass Murderer

Most Norwegians thus far have had no compelling reason to believe that this was false. Their society has continued to be remarkably peaceful, with an extremely low rate of murder, and despite increasing theft and rape rates during the last few years, both attributed largely to immigrants.

It is as though the modern Norwegian system had evolved in the absence of natural predators, and never really developed defenses against them. No doubt Breivik was familiar with the vulnerabilities of Norway's police and population, and knew they would be unarmed. He exploited this fact in a fiendishly clever manner by using the first explosion as both a diversion and an excuse for arriving on the island dressed as a policeman carrying a firearm, ostensibly to help with security after the bombing. The uniform was a brilliant deception because it led the young people to trust him -- despite his weapon -- when he told them to gather round, and heightened the element of stunned surprise which may have made his victims more slow to respond than they might otherwise have been.

Because Breivik managed to kill so many unarmed people, and because the Norwegian police do not ordinarily carry weapons, some people have wrongly assumed that its population is completely unfamiliar with firearms and how to use them. But Norway has a surprisingly strong tradition of gun use for sport. While it is true that fully automatic weapons and certain caliber handguns are banned, and concealed carry is not allowed, Norwegians have a robust number of hunting enthusiasts and recreational shooters who own semi-automatic rifles and shotguns plus some handguns -- all of which, however, are tightly regulated by the government.

And then there's the Norwegian Army. No, that's not an oxymoron; the country has one, as well as an ancient military tradition. After pacifist leanings during the 30s and a lack of preparedness at the start of WWII, Norway's five-year occupation by the Germans was a searing experience for its citizens. On liberation, there was broad support in Norway for the idea that the country needed to maintain an armed force of a size sufficient for self-protection. As a result, Norway joined NATO, and even operates a current draft, although only about a quarter of its men actually end up serving.

So between military training and sport, the society is hardly unfamiliar with guns, although firearms are rarely used for crimes or in self-defense. Norwegians have been shaken to the core by Breivik's violent acts; already there have been a sizable number of calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty or life in prison. Will there also be a public outcry to arm Norway's police and/or security guards? What percentage of the population feels this way, and how many will continue to press for a hardening of security there?

How far the backlash to native son Breivik's almost unthinkable violence will take Norway from its present system of "gentle justice" and weapons-free police is impossible to predict. So far the reaction seems quite limited, but that could change. The outcome is probably dependent on whether Breivik's violence turns out to be an utter anomaly, as devoid of sequelae (other than grief) as it was of antecedents, or whether it turns out to have been a grim harbinger of more violence to come in Norway.