When a bomb exploded in Oslo on July 22 last year, immigrants were immediately presumed guilty of the crime and were to be collectively punished.
As the shootings on the island of Utøya went on, says a report by the Norwegian Centre against Racism, some immigrants were attacked, some by people they knew.
It was presumed that a Muslim had committed the terrorist act. No proof was needed. But it soon turned out that the perpetrator was a white Norwegian, and the reactions changed, with collective guilt being subtly transmuted into collective ideological guilt.
The left promptly attributed the blame for the crime to the extreme far-right, to which terrorist Anders Behring Breivik belonged. But even more interesting was the transformation of the crime of ethnic hate into a crime of mental illness after the revelation that the terrorist was a white Norwegian.
The problem the Norwegian public now had to grapple with was how to get to grips with that fact. Why did Breivik do it? Was he insane? He must have been, given his ethnic background.
The metamorphosis of the question of whether Breivik did it because of ethnic hate to the question of whether he did it because of mental illness would divide Norwegian public opinion.
It would also pose a problem to Breivik himself, for the verdict of insanity delivered by court-appointed forensic psychiatrist, would shatter his opinion of himself as man of heroic deeds.
Determining what Breivik’s mental health was when he committed the atrocious acts of terrorism has proved difficult. His 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, in which he railed against a Marxist-Islamic takeover of Europe, did not itself give a clear indication of how his mental health was.
Psychiatrists came to conflicting conclusions. Randi Rosenqvist reported that he had impulse control and ability to plan that was significantly better than that of most inmates and that his ability to hide his “other face” showed “a double-entry book-keeping”. Breivik was not mentally ill, she concluded.
But the court-appointed forensic psychiatrists, who assessed him before Christmas, delivered a verdict of criminal insanity, saying, he had developed paranoid schizophrenia over time.
The extreme far-right, whose core political views include the radical right-wing opinions expressed in Breivik’s manifesto, had not been comfortable before the verdict.
The left had attributed blame for the attacks to Progress Party, of which Breivik was once a member.
The party, whose supporters constitute the core of anti-immigrant constituency in Norway, accused the left of exploiting the tragedy to silence the extreme far-right.
The left was frustrated by the court-appointed psychiatrists’ conclusion. Breivik himself has contested the verdict, insisting that he is not mentally ill, that he acted according to his ideology, which many people share, and that he sacrificed his life in the struggle against Islamic takeover of Norway.
In his view, his was a political act, not the work of an insane man. In a 38-page open letter to the Norwegian mass media, he says about the verdict: “I must honestly admit that this is the worst that could happen to me, since it is the ultimate humiliation”.
Breivik’s trial is set to begin on April 16.
Mr Abonyo is a Kenyan novelist living and working in Norway. (email@example.com.)