There really is no other way to put it. Anders Breivik is a horrible person. He is responsible for 77 deaths stemming from a bombing in Oslo, Norway in which he killed eight people on July 22, 2011 and he shot and killed another 69 people, mostly adolescents, on the same day, in an inexplicable and terrible pursuit of a far-right fascist ideology.
Breivik is back in the news because he applied for admission into the University of Oslo's Political Science Department. He was rejected, but he will be able to take some online courses. Clearly, some of the survivors of his attacks are outraged that this murderer would even be allowed such an opportunity. But take a moment to realize that what distinguishes us from people like Breivik is our moral obligation to treat all human life with dignity.
If such controversy was stirred in Norway, one can only imagine the fury that would be created in the United States if a death row inmate or one serving permanent imprisonment or life without parole would be given the chance to receive college credit.
Texas, the busiest death penalty state in the country, stopped allowing condemned inmates to order a last meal. It is unimaginable that a person who will be a victim of state-sponsored homicide cannot select a last meal, but while he is alive, would receive his first choice in a college course. To be fair, Texas does have a program which allows inmates to receive academic college degrees — but eligibility is restricted to inmates who will be released and will not serve more than 20 years.
Evidence shows that recidivism is reduced when inmates receive a college education. There is also a high cost to educating prisoners. The cost is worth it when one considers that not only is a return to prison less likely but the person once released is more employable with the college degree.
First, it seems unfair that people who have been convicted of crimes should be able to attend post-secondary school when so many people who have never seen the inside of a courtroom, except for jury duty, cannot enroll. Second, even if the ability to obtain a degree helps those who will eventually be released, it will not benefit society for people who will be executed or never released from prison to attend college, particularly not people who have committed crimes like Anders Breivik.
It is correct to feel access to higher education is out of reach for so many students. The limited amount of financial aid and the albatross that is student loan debt is far more than anyone should bear. But lack of access to college for people who are not incarcerated should not preclude those who are in partaking in higher education; this is not an either/or proposition. Both populations should be able to go, and the government can make it easier to at least attend public institutions. In fact, Article IX of North Carolina's constitution says that public universities should be as free as practicable.
As for the second issue, people do awfully horrific things to one another and the reprehensibility of their actions land them on death row or in prison with chance of release. That does not mean that even the most evil among us does not have a chance to be redeemed. If a person gets to improve him or herself with education, society benefits even if that person is never released. We benefit because we live up to our ideals that.
The Rector of the University of Oslo said this about allowing Breivik to take classes from his institution:
"It falls on our universities to take responsibility for upholding democratic values, ideals and practices, including when these are challenged by heinous acts. We are on a slippery slope should we change the rules and adjust them to crimes committed."
That sentiment in that statement does not only belong to Norway. The United States has the same high ideals. When ruling the electric chair unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment, the Nebraska Supreme Court wrote:
"We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it."
Just as we should end the practice of the death penalty as a hallmark of a civilized society, we need to not only ensure retribution but also rehabilitation even for people we think irredeemable. Providing an education for them reaffirms our own enlightenment.