NORWAY’S PRISONER’S DILEMMA: why it was a good thing that Breivik recently won in court.


In 1942, during the handover ceremony of a Royal Norwegian Navy ship to Norway, President Roosevelt made what would later be known as the “Look to Norway” speech. The speech proved to be an important source of inspiration to resistance fighters all over Europe as Roosevelt appealed to them to emulate the efforts of the Norwegians against Nazi occupation. The speech ended with the words: “if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, let him look to Norway”

Fast forward to February 2013. The Economist runs a front page article entitled “The Next Supermodel” in which Norway, along with its Nordic neighbours, is portrayed as being at the vanguard of government reform, “a blueprint of how to reform the public sector and how to make the state far more efficient and responsive”. As a non-Norwegian who has lived in Norway for the past 21 years and raised a family here, I couldn’t help but feel proud that my Norwegian kids would grow up in a country whose core values would be looked up to by so many other much larger and “greater” nations.


How differently the world is looking to Norway this week as mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik sues The State of Norway on grounds of inhumane and degrading treatment in prison and wins! My Norwegian friends living outside Norway have told me that when they read their local press and listen to people talking about Breivik’s court victory, they feel ridiculed. Norway’s soft approach to Anders Behring Breivik and his crimes have become a laughing stock around the world, first of all because Breivik’s sentence for the 77 murders was too soft – he “only” got 21 years – and now even more so after this latest court victory for Breivik.

However, it is the very same democratic set of values that this exemplary and blueprint nation of Norway is built on that has provided Breivik with an arena and a democratic opportunity to challenge the Norwegian State and win. A win for Breivik was the only possible and the only credible outcome the court case could have, the reasons for which go far beyond just democracy.


Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory maps out 50 countries on a number of what he calls cultural dimensions. One of these dimensions is called the Masculinity vs. Femininity dimension (MAS). Femininity cultural values include catering for the weak more than the strong, promoting equality before equity, encouraging compromise before conflict, nurturing of a healthy work-life balance, and a lenient soft-hand approach when it comes to disciplining and sanctioning its citizens, whether it be at school or in the workplace.

When you place these values up alongside Norway’s social welfare system and tax regimes, both of which favour the weaker and the poorer members of Norwegian society, it comes as no surprise to find Norway on the extreme Feminine end of the scale with a score of 8, while countries like USA and Japan are placed on the opposite Masculine end, with scores of 62 and 95 respectively.

This Feminine culture value system and ideology has a direct influence on Norway’s penal system too, favouring the more humane approach of rehabilitation of criminals rather than highly Masculine approach of severe punishment and retribution. Just look at the “three strikes law” in the USA, or capital punishment, as is the case of some American states. Indeed, when retired prison superintendent James Conway of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York visited a Norwegian prison, he is reported to have been shocked at the rather comfortable hostel-like conditions prisoners lived in, asking reporters incredulously, “Is this really a jail?!” The BBC too ran an article about Breivik this week in which it asked “How cushy are Norwegian jails?”


Another of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions that also comes into play in the treatment of Breivik is Power Distance, a dimension which measures the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Here too, Norway scores very low, along with the other Scandinavian countries. If you really want to experience the ideology of equality where nobody being above the law, countries like Norway, Sweden and Iceland – all of whom score low on Power Distance – are about the best examples you will find in the world.

This ideology was famously captured on photo in 1973 when the King of Norway hopped on to a train during the OPEC oil crisis in solidarity and support for his fellow Norwegians who were asked to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead. Compare also the way Swedish journalists fearlessly lured Iceland’s Prime Minister into an interview trap that very publicly exposed his financial connections during the recent Panama Papers scandal. Nobody is above the law, and everybody will be treated equally in the eyes of the law.

Norwegian satirist Odd Børretsen captured the spirit of this important sense of absolute equality amongst people when he wrote in his satirical How to Understand and Use a Norwegian: “A Norwegian’s attitude to God is about the same as his attitude to the king: he thinks that God – and the King – er OK kind of guys, as long he behaves like a proper Norwegian and doesn’t believe he is anything special.” In other words, equal treatment and a solid sense of solidarity, along with a deep sense of nurturing, caring and rehabilitating of people whoever they may be are the bedrock values of the Nordic Supermodel societies.


And herein lies the dilemma of The Norwegian State in its case against Breivik. Does one live by the values one extols, or does one make exceptions when those values inconveniently don’t work out in your favour? Values without actions are nothing more than empty words, but actions that contradict values tantamount to double standards, and will gradually erode the very foundations that a stable society like Norway is built on. By virtue of its national ideology of equal treatment and equal rights for all its citizens, and by virtue of the fact that Norway thankfully does not have a masculine, large power-distance, capital punishment-based penal code, Norway has no choice but to allow the legal system look at the facts of the case just like any other case, and, in this instance, rule in favour of Breivik.

The problem is that the crimes that Breivik committed were so “off the scale” that even normally peace-loving, equality-driven and compromise-oriented Norwegians find it very hard to swallow that this man is sitting in a prison cell in relative comfort while the lives of 77 families have forever been damaged and a nation’s soul has been tarnished for who knows how long.

But, had the Norwegian legal system not ruled in favour of Breivik and had instead treated him any differently to any other Norwegian citizen – regardless of how atrocious and “unique” his crimes were – then Norway would have displayed double standards. And then the world would have looked not only to Norway’s tarnished democracy, but also to its horrible hypocrisy.

I’m glad Norway made the right choice.

Trine Riccardi