Should Norway Kill Anders Breivik?

Norway doesn’t impose capital punishment. If it did, would I want to kill this man who murdered almost 100 people? I don’t know….

I have written many pieces, here and elsewhere, expressing a near-abolitionist perspective on capital punishment. I stand by that perspective. Capital punishment in the United States is imposed in an arbitrary, often cruel and incompetent fashion that does not promote a safer society. The ritual sacrifice of some deranged or limited person who butchers a nun does not advance any goal I value.

This case tests my own ambivalent views. This is a calculated genocidal act. Its perpetrator hopes to inspire others by his example. We have every reason to believe that, left alive, he will do whatever he can to recruit others into a small but dangerous extremist movement.

Maybe, executing him will prove counterproductive. He might become a martyr, something on the lines of a neo-Nazi version of Che Guevara. Death penalty abolitionists will embrace this view. They believe that showing restraint, even in this case, highlights the self-confidence and strength of a pluralist democracy. I’m drawn to this view myself, particularly when we are talking about a society such as Norway that so exemplifies these values.

We should remember, though, that this is an empirical judgment. If the most efficient way to extirpate homicidal terrorism includes occasional executions of the perpetrators, that’s what I would favor.

I believe, on balance, that executing Tim Mcveigh was the right call. Bin Laden’s case was quite different. Still, I believe that killing him was the right and necessary, call, as well. Capital punishment was amply justified by the atrocities these men carefully perpetrated, and by the political challenge they sought to pose.

Plus, as Hannah Arendt once put things, these men don’t want to share planet Earth with me. I’d just as soon not share this planet with them, either.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.