If there was ever evidence of the power of words, we see it in the trial of Anders Brevik, on trial for the mass murder of 77 people in Norway last July.As he started five days of testimony, authorities banned television coverage, so concerned were they at what he was going to say in his opening statement and the impact his words could have. There were even warnings from his own counsel that many would find his comments upsetting, but that he had a right to explain himself. Today,it has been reported that Brevik conceded he had toned down his rhetoric out of concern for his victims.
It will be a very long time until we hear what he actually said. Even the testimony of his witnesses will not be broadcast. NRK, the country’s national broadcaster, will film the whole trial. But the footage will be locked away for 25 years before anyone will have an opportunity to judge Brevik and his words for themselves.
Recently, Brevik sent a 36-page letter to the press criticising the forensic psychiatrists who declared him insane. The use of that word offended him, undoubtedly because he didn’t like the implication that these murderous acts were the actions of a madman.
His whole persona is based on being an activist, a soldier fighting to save his country – that single word, “insane”, could undermine that whole position, rendering him just another mass murderer for whom the world has nothing but contempt. In that assessment, his words would count for nothing, his actions would be seen as loathsome but ultimately dismissed. That single word lies at the heart of this trial and it will dictate the outcome of this painful period in Norweigan history.
There’s an old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me”. However, in this case, it appears that the physical brutality of Anders Brevik may be matched by his repugnant words justifying the deaths of 77 innocent people. But should we be stopped from hearing them?