Norway Victims Face Anders Behring Breivik

In an Oslo courtroom, the case against the man who killed 77 people this summer is just beginning. Åsne Seierstad reports on the survivors, the families—and the swarm of lawyers.

11.18.11 3:29 AM ET

The morning is dark, and the fog rests low over Oslo, seeping in from the fjord, spreading its near-freezing damp over the awakening city. In a brightly lit courtroom, five friends sit tightly together on a wooden bench, waiting for the moment they have long feared but still decided they had to face—facing the man who almost killed them, and who murdered so many of their friends. On one side sits their lawyer; on the other, one of the mothers. Present in court are also parents who last saw their children alive when they packed their bags as they prepared to attend the Norwegian Labor Party’s summer camp. Only a handful of them have had the strength to meet their children’s assassin this misty morning.

He enters. Anders Behring Breivik smiles faintly at the audience. He sits down, takes a sip of the water placed in front of him, and looks at the survivors and the next of kin, scanning the room, back and forth. As he stands up to face the judge, he makes a point of adjusting his shirt cuffs. He wears a dark suit and a light-blue silk tie.

Breivik has confessed to killing 77 people on July 22, but he has refused to plead guilty. In this first public appearance in court, he chooses not to answer the judge's question, but just says, “I am a military commander of the Norwegian resistance movement,” and begins questioning the legitimacy of the court, arguing: “It has its mandate from organizations supporting multiculturalism and is, as such, based on anti-Norwegian hate ideology designed to deconstruct the Norwegian ethnicity.” In statements made before the hearing, he has stated that the massacre was necessary to save Norway and Europe from Muslims and from multiculturalism. The youth of the ruling Labor Party fought for more relaxed immigration policies.

During the session, which lasts only a few minutes, the judge interrupts Breivik three times—the last when Breivik is talking about the isolation he has experienced in jail. “If one is to use methods of torture,” he says, “Saudi Arabia has a much better method that I would like to recommend.”

Breivik exits the room, slowly, as if he had wanted to linger on in the free world.

The five friends on the bench are left with their lawyer, Cathrine Grøndahl. She suggests they debrief over a coffee. “Did the metal detector scream when you entered the courthouse?” one of the schoolboys jokes, referring to the bullets or fragments of shrapnel that were left in their bodies.

As Andrine Johansen sits down in the coffee shop, she shivers uncontrollably, her lips, her head, her whole body. The last time the 16-year-old high-school student saw the killer was at the island of Utøya, when he killed some of her closest friends. He stood next to her when he shot her in the chest and later left her for dead as he shot one after another of her friends, screaming: “I will kill you all!” Andrine lay motionless, half-covered by the water that was colored red by her own blood and the blood of her friends. “The girl next to me was hit so many times,” the schoolgirl says. “Her face, her hair, everything was colored in blood. I was lucky because I was struck by the shrapnel from the bullets that hit my friend, so the killer thought I was dead.” As her friends were dying around her, Andrine kept her eyes open. She felt she would lose control if she closed them.

Attending the hearing was a way of regaining control. “I wanted to see him in safe surroundings. Tied up between policemen. Knowing that he can't do any more harm,” the tall girl with long, dark-blonde hair and a bullet in her chest says. Both Andrine and her schoolmate Einar Bardal, who still has fragments of bullets in his jaw, feel empowered leaving Oslo City Court. “He seemed surprisingly nervous, weak, soft-spoken,” Einar says. “He actually looked pathetic,” he assures me.

Pathetic might also be the most appropriate word to describe the fight for attention that some of the 157 lawyers representing the victims of the attacks have started with each other. Some are threatening to sue the Norwegian state if their clients don’t get sufficiently large—in their opinion—financial settlements from the government. The attorneys are all paid by the state, and in Norway victims of violent acts are granted compensation for harm suffered, according to a scale laid down in a statutory compensation scheme, with the maximum threshold of about $50,000. Some of the lawyers have focused on criticizing Norway’s unpreparedness for a terror attack, the slow arrival of the police to the scene, the police’s inadequate equipment, the ambulances that were held back out of fear that their personnel would be in danger, the emergency telephone lines that broke down, and, most important, the authorities’ blindness toward this kind of terror: white terror from within, a posh rich boy who bought fertilizer by the ton to construct his bomb, without ever appearing on the radar of the security agencies.

“But does this focus help the hundreds of young, traumatized youths that survived the killing spree?” Grøndahl asks. “We might make what is already bad worse,” the respected lawyer says. “Lawyers are focused on conflict, to place guilt, but the clients’ interest might be something else. We ask them to dig up the worst they experienced, in order to receive the highest compensation. That is our bread. This is what makes us tick. But there is a risk that we tie our young clients down and victimize them.”

“An accident seldom comes alone. Two steps behind walks a lawyer,” Grøndahl wrote this week in an essay published in the Norwegian magazine Samtiden. “We want to hear about the bad days, the nightmares, the angst and depression. We look for symptoms of posttraumatic stress and ask our clients to elaborate. Our grip is a grip of damage and trauma, of victimization … The greater the trauma, the higher the compensation.”

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The movie The Sweet Hereafter is based on a book by Russell Banks about a schoolbus accident in Alton, Texas, in 1989, where a Coca-Cola truck crashed into a schoolbus and left 21 children dead and 49 injured. Then came the second catastrophe—the lawyers arriving in town. Three hundred and fifty lawsuits were filed and $144 million was paid out in damages; more than one third of that went to the lawyers. Some of the lawsuits were even between citizens of the little town who felt they hadn’t gotten as much as their neighbors. Cathrine Grøndahl does not want this to happen in Norway, and will meet with the other lawyers to discuss how to obtain compensation without digging too painfully into the psyches of the traumatized victims. Some think 157 is far too many lawyers appointed for the victims.

“This is an orgy of lawyers,” says high-profile Norwegian attorney Cato Schiøtz. “Some of the attorneys representing the victims appear to be more motivated by their own reputation and image building than by the interests and wishes of their clients. There should be a standard amount for most of the victims; going into the details for each victim in order to settle on the right amount of compensation is likely to cause the victims harm.” He would exclude the seriously wounded from that one-size-fits-all formulation. “Then this vast number of attorneys paid by the state would be unnecessary,” he argues.

The clients have different motivations from their lawyers. Sixteen-year-old Andrine is this midmorning most concerned about the policeman who questioned her, and who stopped taking notes when she was telling him about the wounded friend next to her. Her friend had said, as blood poured out of him, “I have to keep on talking. I know that when I stop I die.” At some point he did stop talking. “The police said they had already gotten enough details from me.” Andrine shivers. She hasn’t yet even thought of the compensation, and the tall girl with the bullet in her chest does not want to be a victim. She just wants to be listened to, to tell people about the friend who died talking—and then get on with her life.

There’s something else that needs to happen first, though; the trial of Anders Behring Breivik is set to start April 16.