“Well that’s where I’m going if I want to kill a bunch of people: Norway!”

Those were the sentiments I heard this morning, a day after Norwegian anti-Islamic fanatic Anders Behring Breivik appeared in court to explain why he killed 77 people last summer (he said he was doing his part in the battle to defend Europe against mass immigration).

The speaker was referring to Norway’s 21-year maximum prison sentence for any crime, including murder. His point appeared to be that 21 years is a light sentence for murder, and not much of a deterrent compared to the deterrent of the death penalty in the United States.

This may seem a reasonable view. It would appear logical to say that the consequence of being ‘put to death’ would make a person think harder before they commit homicide than being locked up for a few years and then released. Anyone who’s looked at the data knows that the assumption is actually false: the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent, and not only that; the opposite correlation is true.


The homicide rate in the United States, with its many death penalty jurisdictions, was 4.8 per 100,000 people in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available). The homicide rate in Norway, on the other hand, with its maximum 21 year prison terms for murder, is just 0.7 per 100,000 people for the same year. This means there are 85 percent more murders happening each year in the United States than there are in Norway (chart above). Maybe Norway shouldn’t be taking any lessons from Americans about deterring murder?

At this point, you may be thinking that there are other cultural factors that contribute to the difference in murder rates, and that apples should be compared only with apples (rather than with any other similarly shaped fruit, no matter how tempting). Okay. Let’s look at murder rates in U.S. states with the death penalty and compare them with the murder rates in U.S. states without the death penalty. I think we could all agree that both such entities look very much like apples?


The answer, again, is that not only do we observe that there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent, but the opposite correlation is true. In all states with the death penalty combined over the 21 year period from 1990 to 2010 (no intentional irony there), the average murder rate was 6.96 per 100,000 people. In that same period, all the states without a death penalty combined had an average murder rate of only 5.49 per 100,000 people. That’s a huge 31 percent difference between them. And the higher murder rate belongs to the wrong group, if you want to assert that the death penalty is a deterrent!

Among any Norwegians who happen to think their 21 year maximum prison term is too lenient would be Brievik himself, who says he made peace with death before he went on his killing spree and would rather be executed; an option his government is denying him. But anyone who thinks he’s going to be released after 21 years is most likely wrong, at least if he’s still a raving lunatic in 21 years. The Norway system will lock away anyone who is a danger to society for as long as necessary, including life, even if given a ’21 year sentence’. And if he is determined to be insane at the conclusion of his current trial, he’ll be institutionalized until he’s better or until he’s dead by natural means, whichever comes first.

For vengeful America – in love with the God of the Old Testament who would give people what was coming to them rather than the Jesus of the New (who said “You have heard it said ‘Eye for eye’, but I say…”) – the death penalty makes more sense, despite its higher cost, lack of deterrence, and the very grave, very real inevitability of killing innocent people by mistake (at least 4.1% of those on death row since the 1970s, according to a recent estimate. Perhaps that’s why they find the Norwegian system crazy while the Norwegians, along with the rest of the developed world, have long abandoned the death penalty as the unjust punishment it is.

We could speculate as to why both higher murder rates and the death penalty come together in the America we know. Is it possible they have the same root cause; the hasty mixture of peoples and cultures in the great melting pot with promises of liberty, and the frantic pursuit of that dream by people just crazy enough to pursue it (followed by their descendants)? These possible causes of violence are, ironically, the same causes of America’s greatness. With such violence came violent responses to it by the governments of the states. But violent crime of all kinds in the United States has fallen dramatically over time, particularly in the last 30 years. And with that drop in the violence of citizens comes rapidly falling support for the violence of government too.

I watched Derren Brown’s excellent series The Experiments recently. One of the four episodes is called The Gameshow. It involves an unsuspecting member of the public being watched by a studio audience using hidden cameras, and allows the audience to make decisions about what will happen to him, including options of some very horrible things. Time and time again, the audience chose the most awful things, which eventually led Derren to admit that it was not the poor unsuspecting protagonist that he was interested in at all, but that the entire experiment had had the audience as its subjects, and that he’d just proved the ferocity of mob mentality. And so, the death penalty. Legally sanctioned mob mentality.

Individuals are empathetic, no matter the country they live in. Crowds become lynch mobs, and don’t serve justice well. That’s an important lesson.