When the call came to Geir Lippestad’s home in Oslo early on July 23, 2011, the unassuming lawyer knew his quiet life would never be the same.
Anders Behring Breivik had shot 69 people the day before at a camp run by the youth wing of the Labour Party and he’d killed eight more with a bomb in downtown Oslo. Mr. Breivik claimed to be defending Norway against outsiders and he targeted the camp because of the Labour Party’s support for multiculturalism.
Now the police were calling him to say the suspected mass murderer wanted Mr. Lippestad as his lawyer. Mr. Lippestad took the case and found himself not only defending Mr. Breivik, but also explaining to the world the importance of fair trials, justice and protecting a legal system where even the most heinous criminal is treated like a human being.
It wasn’t easy. Mr. Lippestad faced death threats, had a swastika painted on the side of his house and feared for the safety of his wife and eight children. But over time, his arguments about justice and fairness won out and Norwegians came to view him as something of a hero, even selecting him Person of the Year, for 2012, in two newspaper polls. He is now finishing a book, called What We Stand For, that uses the Breivik case to explore how Western societies should confront extremists.
Sitting in his modest office above a shoe store in central Oslo last week, the soft-spoken lawyer said the solution wasn’t to limit free speech or censor people like Mr. Breivik. Instead, xenophobic ideas like his need to be aggressively challenged. “Get it out in the light. Look at it. What is it? Face up to it,” he said.
“When a 15-year-old kid goes into an [extremist website], he must have the tools to understand that this is not average, this is extreme,” said Mr. Lippestad. “And how can a 15-year-old get this knowledge? Of course, from his parents, his schools and the media. He must be much more aware of these things.”
As for those who were shocked that Mr. Breivik was allowed to read from his anti-immigrant manifesto during his trial, Mr. Lippestad said the alternative would have been worse. “We could, of course, have had a trial closed for the press and be afraid that he should speak. But then again if we are afraid to listen to why he did what he did, then [other extremists] will get some arguments. They will say they don’t dare to listen to us. They don’t dare to let us speak, the government is afraid,” he said.
He is under no illusions about Mr. Breivik’s dangerous network of supporters, who come from around the world, including Canada. And he understands that many people find it unsettling that Mr. Breivik came from an upper-class family, went to good schools and didn’t hang out with white supremacists. All of his ideas came from the Internet. “I don’t think the answer is to shut down [the websites], because then you have the issue of freedom of speech,” Mr. Lippestad said. “The answer is to get more knowledge.”
Mr. Lippestad struggled with his decision to represent Mr. Breivik. The killer asked for the lawyer, who is a member of the Labour Party, because he had represented a white supremacist who killed a black man 11 years ago. “My first instinct was that this case will be very, very difficult and very, very painful for me and for my family,” Mr. Lippestad said. Then he asked his wife for advice. “She said to me, ‘Well I’m a nurse. If he was wounded and came to the hospital I wouldn’t call in and say, no I won’t come into the hospital today because he’s there. I would do my job. You are a lawyer, do your job.’”
His reservations continued after he met Mr. Breivik for the first time at the police station that morning. Mr. Lippestad sat next to his new client for 12 hours as Mr. Breivik eagerly told police every detail about the shooting. Then he encouraged Mr. Lippestad to go out and tell the world.
“At the end of the day I was thinking, what can I do to defend this guy?” Mr. Lippestad said. “Why in the world are you here as a lawyer? And then it was very clear to me. I’m here because I believe in the justice system. I believe in democracy. I believe this is the way we solve things in Norway and in Canada and in many other places in the world. That’s why I’m here.” And that’s what he told the world that day – not the details of the killing, but the importance of giving Mr. Breivik a fair trial.
Later he wrestled with the decision to argue in court that Mr. Breivik was sane, especially since the killer initially wanted to plead insanity in hope of getting a lighter sentence. Mr. Breivik changed his mind after receiving letters from supporters who said they would no longer follow him if he was insane. “For me it was difficult as his lawyer to just accept that he is a sane person,” Mr. Lippestad said. “My job is to do what he wants and this guy wants to take responsibility because this was a political act for him and he doesn’t want to be insane.”
Mr. Lippestad has little contact with Mr. Breivik anymore, although he is representing him over a complaint about his isolation in prison. And while Mr. Breivik’s 21-year sentence can be extended, the lawyer isn’t convinced it will be. “Maybe when he’s an old man he will hit the streets again, but I don’t know.”
As for his career, Mr. Lippestad said he plans to use the attention he has received to talk about the importance of judging people on their values, not their skin colour. He is already in high demand as a speaker across Europe and has invitations from United States. And despite his membership in the Labour Party, he has no plans to become a politician. “No I won’t do that,” he said with a smile. “I love it as a lawyer. And I will work as a lawyer.”