18 Years’ Prison for Pim Fortuyn’s Assassin

Sorry, folks, today it’s time to return to my home turf, the Netherlands. Yesterday the confessed murderer of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was sentenced to a mere 18 years in prison, of which he could end up serving little more than half. This for perpetrating last May the Netherlands’ first political murder since William the Silent was assassinated at his home in Delft in 1584, at the height of the struggle for independence from the Spanish empire.

This criminal, Volkert van der Graaf (in the Dutch press, even after his conviction referred to only as “Volkert van der G.,” under restrictions imposed by Dutch law – as if there’s anybody still out there who doesn’t yet know what the “G.” stands for), gunned down the man who was in the process of turning the Dutch political establishment on its head, who was looking forward to the possibility of becoming the country’s next prime minister, and who indeed seemed to enjoy levels of public support, ready to be openly expressed in the nationwide general election to be held the following week, which would bring that about. (No, Pim Fortuyn was not merely the Dutch equivalent of right-wing, anti-immigrant firebrands like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen; that is a false comparison used by foreigners looking for an easy handle with which to categorize in their mind what was a much more complicated phenomenon in this country.) The peculiarities of the Dutch political system meant that he could build a political organization deriving very substantial power – the power even to make him prime minister – simply from his own person and the popularity he attracted – and so he did. But that also meant that, once that person was removed, there was very little substance left to the LPF (the List Pim Fortuyn, his party). The Dutch electorate last May nevertheless made the LPF the second-most popular party, and thus thrust it into the governing coalition, out of a determination not to let the criminal actions of a murderer deny them their political preferences. This still did nothing to alter the fact that, with Fortuyn gone, there was really nothing left in the LPF; the result was simply endless internal squabbling among the remaining unknown, inexperienced, and politically immature LPF representatives, which paralyzed that government’s ability to accomplish anything and eventually led to its collapse last October – leading us to new elections last January (with the LPF’s share of the vote substantially reduced) and the current, new Dutch political mess that we’re in, with no government other than the old, caretaker one even three months after that last election.

Americans struggling to understand the meaning of this sentence can best be referred to the fate of Sirhan Sirhan, the 1968 assassin of leading Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy – who is in fact serving out a commuted life sentence in a California prison, having first been sentenced to death. (No, Lee Harvey Oswald is not accurate as a parallel, as he assassinated a sitting president.) What are we to make of this scrupulous (if spurious) protection in the Netherlands of the identity of even a confessed murderer, of punishing him with a sentence that could have him back free on the streets when he is only in his mid-40s – in part, according to the reasoning of the judges made public, because they think it’s unlikely that he would ever do such a thing again?

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