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Finally, there’s the Norwegian psychiatric establishment, with which, owing to my involvement in the care and treatment of a close friend or two, I happen to have a good deal of familiarity. I have, let it be said, met some highly admirable doctors, nurses, and orderlies. I have also encountered, time and again, an almost robotically bureaucratic mentality that manifests itself in a variety of ways – a general lackadaisical attitude, want of urgency, and unimaginativeness; a stubborn disinclination to entertain valid alternatives to obviously unsuccessful approaches; and a misguided notion that putting reasonable restrictions on patients in order to prevent them from doing harm to themselves or others is an unforgivable violation of their rights, dignity, and personhood. (So it is that raging, violence-prone psychotics who have been forcibly committed are, for example, allowed out to go on daily walks.) I know that none of this is unique to Norway, but the problems seem to me considerably more exaggerated here than in, say, the U.S.
It is this last assumption – that putting reasonable restrictions on patients is some kind of crime – that is particularly challenged by the case of Breivik. Nobody wants to see this guy on the loose. Yet even the most “high-security” psychiatric wards in Norway are laughable in their lack of security. Any motivated patient could escape from any of them with relative ease – because the very concept of security, real security, is, consciously or not, perceived, culturally and institutionally, as morally offensive. Better to let people in the clutches of utter insanity slip out and do harm to themselves than keep them closely guarded and work as hard as you can to help them get better. What we are dealing with here, I have gradually come to understand, is a profound lack of individual responsibility masquerading as exquisite societal sensitivity.
As it happens, the authorities have pretty much admitted that no psychiatric facility in all of Norway is equipped with the kind of security features necessary to ensure that Breivik won’t escape. Hence it was reported on January 24 that one of the options being considered is – no kidding – constructing an all-new “one-man hospital” on the grounds of Ila Prison, just for Breivik. Since Norwegian law dictates that convicts who have been diagnosed with mental disorders must be held in hospitals and not in prisons, officials have reportedly been looking into whether the installation of Breivik in a hospital built inside prison walls would be legally permissible, or whether the government would have to ask the parliament to pass new legislation to allow for this special case.
Such are the considerations that confront Norwegian officialdom – and Norwegians generally – as the trial of Anders Behring Breivik approaches. It will, to say the least, be interesting to see how all this plays out as the developments of the next few months shine an increasingly bright light on the system’s inherent contradictions and – yes – absurdities.
This piece has been corrected. The author thanks Alvaro for noticing the error.
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