Ask anyone who's ever visited it: Oslo is the most expensive city on the planet. A recent article about these matters observed that “Oslo comes out so far on top in a study of 32 countries worldwide that second-placed São Paulo seems almost ludicrously cheap by contrast.” Housing being in short supply, moreover, apartments are especially pricey, whether you're renting or buying, and the competition for them is fierce. And, oh yes, they're generally pretty small, if not downright tiny.
One man, however, has figured out how to beat the system. All he had to do was brutally slaughter 77 people in cold blood and sit through a few months of tiresome courtroom proceedings. Now he's set for life, with what essentially amounts to a lifetime lease on a pleasant three-room apartment just outside of northwest Oslo (the fanciest part of town, no less). Each of the rooms measures 86 square feet. One of them is a workout room, with a treadmill and Stairmaster. Another one is a study, furnished with a desk and laptop, where he can work on the three books he's currently planning to write. Though he doesn't have Internet access, he's able to search an offline version of Wikipedia. He also has a free TV (he doesn't even have to pay the annual $443 license fee like the rest of us) and has newspapers delivered daily. You can see his digs here, though his landlords, out of an extraordinary delicate sense of respect for his privacy, have chosen not to videotape his bedroom.
There's no kitchen, but he doesn't need one: his landlords will provide him with three decent meals a day, take away the dirty dishes, and not expect a tip. There's no laundry room because they'll do his laundry for him. He won't receive bills from the phone company or electric company. He won't have to change his sheets or mop his own floor: those things will be taken care of, too.
No, he can't have friends in. But so what? This guy's not so into friends anyway. Nor can he go out. But big deal – you ever been in Oslo? For months at a time, the sidewalks on the busiest downtown streets are covered in gleaming sheets of ice. To venture outside most of the year is to risk breaking a hip or any number of ribs. And let's face it, where's there to go? A bar, where you'll pay twelve bucks for a half pint of beer? Or a relatively modest restaurant, where you'll shell out fifty clams for a lousy burger?
Besides, if he gets bored writing his books, he'll be able to take advantage of a variety of job and educational opportunities (college courses, cooking classes), plus a range of other diverting activities, all of them right there in the same complex he's living in – he won't even have to go outside. All this, explains one of his landlords, is “to compensate for his limited contact with others, and to counteract the damage caused by isolation.” Oh yes, there's also a yard where he can walk and sit for an hour a day. And in time, his landlords expect to provide him with access to a library and a gym, among other amenities. As one of his landlords told Fox News, “I like to put it this way: He's a human being. He has human rights....Isolation is torture.” Hey, I'm a writer, tell me about it.
The human being we're talking about here is, of course, Anders Behring Breivik, who on a July day last year was a very bad boy. And the apartment we're talking about is, at least in a narrowly technical sense, a prison cell. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Max Fisher ponders the curious approach to criminal punishment that led to Breivik having such a cushy set-up. While most justice systems, he notes, are “built on an idea called retributive justice,” Norway's “is built on something called restorative justice,” which aims not at punishment but at “healing.” The convict “is encouraged to grapple with the wrongness of [his] actions” and become a better person – the assumption, of course, being that he's capable of such a transformation, an assumption that in Breivik's case seems, shall we say, naïve.
Though he admits that a guy like Breivik isn't a promising candidate for “restoration,” Fisher nonetheless says he's been convinced that restorative justice “works, as long as you don't consider retribution to be its own inherent good.” Still, Fisher isn't a total convert to Norwegian-style imprisonment. He admits to feeling that there's just plain something wrong about it – it subverts certain human desires, not necessarily for revenge, as some champions of the Norwegian approach claim, but for a real sense of justice.
Yes indeed. And I would add something else. Fisher focuses on retribution vs. restoration, as if these were the only two relevant considerations. But what about deterrence?
Reflect for a moment on the following: although Norway has weathered the international financial crisis relatively well, thanks to its oil fortune, there are still plenty of homeless people on the streets of Oslo. The city has a disproportionate number of drug addicts awaiting methadone treatment and individuals with severe psychiatric problems who can't get the treatment they need. Norway's reputation as a soft touch has drawn more and more gypsies from the other end of the European continent. At night Oslo's main drag swarms with aggressive Nigerian prostitutes and unsavory types from heaven knows where who want to sell you drugs. And don't forget the innumerable hard-working nine-to-fivers who pay exorbitant rents for tiny digs – or the tens of thousands of Oslo-area Muslims who, back in their homelands, could only have dreamed about living Breivik-style. Is it absurd to assume that one or more of these persons, at some point, knowing what luxury (relatively speaking) awaits them on the far side of the police station and the courtroom, might decide to commit an unspeakable atrocity in order to acquire a flat like Breivik's? Is the concept of deterrence, in short, really a dead letter? Or is the Norwegian government being as foolish, in the post-sentencing kid-glove treatment of its all-time number-one felon, as it was in its pre-July 22 failure to take elementary, commonsensical measures to protect its people from his mad designs?
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