Last Friday, upon receiving the maximum possible penalty for murdering 77 people in and near Oslo a year ago, Anders Behring Breivik smiled. The prison sentence—21 years initially, but indefinitely extendable for as long as Breivik is deemed a threat—meant a five-judge panel had rejected the prosecution's argument that the self-proclaimed anti-Islamic militant was insane when he committed his bloody crimes.
Since Breivik feared such a judgment would hurt his political cause, the verdict was, in that sense, a victory for him. But it was also a victory for individual responsibility and the rule of law, both of which are undermined by pseudomedical pronouncements that treat extreme ideas as symptoms of mental illness.
On July 22, 2011, Breivik set off a car bomb near government offices in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. He then proceeded to the island of Utoya, about 19 miles away, where he shot 100 people, 67 fatally, at a summer youth camp for aspiring politicians sponsored by the governing Labor Party. Two others died by falling or drowning while trying to escape. Most of the victims were teenagers.
In A European Declaration of Independence, a 1,500-page manifesto he posted online shortly before his murder spree, Breivik explained his motivation: He was seeking to protect Norway from "Islamic colonisation" by attacking the agents of "multiculturalism." During his trial, he identified himself as "a member of the Norwegian resistance movement ," called his violence "the most spectacular sophisticated political act in Europe since the Second World War," and regretted that he had not killed more people.
"I did this out of goodness, not evil," Breivik said. "I acted in self-defense on behalf of my people, my city, my country." He urged the court not to misconstrue his deliberate actions as the involuntary product of a diseased brain. "When you see something too extreme," he said, "you might think it is irrational and insane. But you must separate political extremism from insanity."
That distinction was lost on the two court-appointed psychiatrists who declared that Breivik's crimes were driven not by ideology but by psychotic delusions, the result of untreated paranoid schizophrenia. Their report, released last November, provoked so much criticism that the court appointed two more psychiatrists, who last April rejected their colleagues' diagnosis, concluding that Breivik is and was sane.
"Psychiatry is not an exact science by any means," BBC News observed at the time. In light of such diametrically opposed conclusions based on the same evidence, one might wonder whether it qualifies as a science at all.
The same mental-health magic that absolves guilty men of responsibility can strip innocent men of their freedom. The day before Breivik was sentenced, a Virginia judge ordered the release of Brandon Raub, a 26-year-old Marine Corps veteran who was forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation based on his conspiracy-minded, anti-government Facebook posts.
Federal agents and Chesterfield County police came and took Raub away on August 16 in response to complaints about the posts, which mix laments about lost liberty and condemnations of tyranny with dark music lyrics, predictions of impending revolution, and wacky but sadly familiar allegations about the government's involvement in 9/11. A week later Circuit Judge W. Allan Sharrett ruled that the petition used to obtain an order committing Raub for a month, which was supposed to be based on evidence that he posed an imminent danger to others, was "so devoid of any factual allegations that it could not be reasonably expected to give rise to a case or controversy."
Raub's brush with psychiatric coercion gives you a sense of how loosening the rules for civil commitment, as various pundits urged in the wake of Jared Lee Loughner's shooting rampage in Tucson last year, could sweep up harmless cranks who pose no threat to public safety. If the reforms recommended by the stop-them-before-they-kill crowd had been implemented, Raub might still be imprisoned for his disturbing opinions.