Only 21 years

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Every news report about the Norwegian accused killer, Anders Behring Breivik, includes with astonishment the fact that the longest sentence available to Norway's criminal justice system is 21 years.

There are articles about whether Norway will change its sentencing system, reviews of the death sentences of other mass killers, and even, yesterday, a column in The New York Times praising revenge as a virtue.

All the commentators stress that Breivik will be out on the streets at age 53, omitting the fact that a Norwegian judge has the power to determine that he would be a danger to himself or others and continue to confine him.

Somehow, we can't bear it that Norway sees the criminal justice system differently than we do. It can't be right. We can't get our heads around it. We say that bereaved Norwegian parents will not stand for it.

All of our hearts ache for those parents. They will carry such enormous sorrow all their lives. How will their culture help them cope with that burden?

I don't know, but I think that family, neighbors, churches, media, the whole community will be a bulwark of support. I am reminded of the forgiveness showed by Amish parents five years ago to the killer of their children.

Here in the United States we consider vengeful, lengthy sentences and slashing of rehabilitation programs to be the norm. But maybe our treatment of prisoners merely reflects our inability to provide real support and sustenance for the survivors of crime and violence. Perhaps what we need is to build community and experience support and a sense of belonging. Then we might be able to go forward into the future together and we might be able to allow perpetrators to seek redemption.

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