Anders Breivik and the Fine Line Between Ideology and Insanity


Today a Norwegian court ruled that Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people and wounded more than 240 last year by setting off bombs in Oslo and shooting up a Workers' Youth League camp on the island of Utøya, was sane when he committed those crimes. The five-judge panel sentenced him to 21 years in prison, the maximum penalty allowed by law. He must serve at least 10 years of that sentence but could be imprisoned longer than than the full term under a provision that allows preventive detention of prisoners deemed to pose a continuing threat to public safety. The sentence, combining what looks like lenience with the potential for indefinite detention, looks quirky from an American perspective (although we have something similar with the civil commitment of "sexually violent predators" who have completed their sentences). Another aspect of the trial that may seem strange: We are used to hearing defense attorneys argue that their client should not be held responsible for his crime because it was the product of mental illness. But in this case, Breivik insisted that he was sane, driven not by psychosis but by ideology, while the prosecution argued that he was crazy. On that point, the judges unanimously sided with Breivik.

How did they make that determination? BBC News describes the process:

[Breivik] insisted he was sane and refused to plead guilty, seeking to justify his attacks by saying they were necessary to stop the "Islamisation" of Norway….

Court-appointed psychiatrists disagreed on Breivik's sanity. A first team which examined him declared him to be a paranoid schizophrenic, but the second found he was sane.

Before the verdict, Breivik said psychiatric care would be "worse than death"….

Breivik, 33, carried out the meticulously planned attack on 22 July 2011, wearing a fake police uniform, and methodically hunted down his victims.

He accused the governing Labour Party of promoting multiculturalism and endangering Norway's identity….

Experts in far-right ideology told the trial Breivik's ideas should not be seen as the ramblings of a madman.

That's a pretty fine line, as Brandon Raub could tell you. In this month's Cato Unbound debate about coercive psychiatry, Allen Frances, who led the panel that produced the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, says, "I believe that the recent run of mass murderers whose killings are based on fringe, extremist political beliefs are usually better handled as murderers in the legal system than as mental patients in the psychiatric—even if their beliefs seem offensive and bizarre." By contrast, D.J. Jaffe, executive director of MentalIllnessPolicy.org, cites Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as an example of someone whose "untreated mental illness" drove him to murder. If Kaczyski, who produced a manifesto explaining in great detail the motivation for his crimes, does not count as a murderer "whose killings are based on fringe, extremist political beliefs," who does?

My most recent contribution to the Cato debate is here.