The mass-murder trial shows how full acknowledgment of the truth of human suffering can help heal the victims, their families and a whole nation.
Because it gave space to the story of each individual victim, allowed their families to express their loss and listened to the voices of the wounded, the Breivik trial provides a new model for justice in cases of terrorism and civilian mass murder.
Such intense reminders of the human suffering and loss did not come at the expense of the defendant’s rights. At the opening of the trial Mr. Breivik was allowed to hold forth about his ideology, an amalgam of American right-wing propaganda and European anti-Muslim fascism and racism, for 73 minutes. He testified in court for over a week. He frequently corrected witnesses.
The Breivik trial thus sought to provide a measure of restorative justice within the normal criminal court system. Unlike the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, the trial did not aim for reconciliation but for acknowledgment of the human suffering caused by the atrocities.
In recent years, courts around the world have chosen different ways to deal with cases involving terrorism and mass murder. Military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay are often closed, or rely on secret evidence. In the case of Jared L. Loughner, the man who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a plea bargain was considered preferable to a traumatizing trial.
The Breivik trial provides an example of the opposite point of view: that full acknowledgment of the truth of human suffering can have healing effects, for the victims and their families, and for a whole nation. That, even more than the verdict itself, should be the lasting legacy of this horrific event in Norway’s history.