Criminal Justice

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, 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.

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  1. “Liberalism is a mental disorer”
    -Michael Savage

    1. *disorder*

      -wards off the semantics police

  2. “Black Power!”

    1. No, that is a fascist right wing salute.

      1. Actually, that’s in the international sign for “I want to be anally fisted.”

        1. Is it? Is it “in” the sign? Because I don’t know what that means.

  3. Well, it may be a lily-white version of the salute, but it’s close enough.

    1. Oops. That was a response to Chloe.

  4. You know who else wrote a manifesto?

    1. Tristan Tzara?

  5. If you kill somebody you must be crazy because only crazy people kill other people

    1. then he’s 70x crazy

  6. What about the guy who apparently (allegedly) sent an e-mail to the FBI expressing his desire and/or intent to snuff the President?

    Insane, or insanely stupid?

  7. I am still on the fence about whether or not this guy was insane or insane-insane. There is something about him that makes me think crazy that I didn’t think when I look at guys like Timothy McVeigh.

    1. Ten to twenty-one years for 77 murders?! I don’t give a shit about his degree of sanity. He has done us the favor of certifyng his capability of and proclivity for killing human beings. Sane or insane, he (and all 1/77th+ scale models of him) needs to be caged for the rest of his life.

    2. I’m pretty sure that this guy is rationally insane, as in he knows exactly who he is and what he was doing. Being a neo Nazi is not the same thing as being a paranoid schizophrenic.

      1. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with a legal definition of insanity here, not a clinical one. Generally speaking, the legal standard for insanity is this: “a defendant must have been so impaired by a mental disease or defect at the time of the act that he or she did not know the nature or quality of the act, or, if the defendant did know the nature or quality of the act, he or she did not know that the act was wrong.”

    3. I am on the fence as to does it even matter?

      Perhaps I am some heartless SOB, but I think this is why there should be capital punishment. I mean at the very least, can’t we agree that when murder exceeds 50 people (my threshold would be lower, but go with me) that we should just dispose of the asshole (insane or not insane) and move on?

      1. I can’t agree. Personally, I see the problem as two-fold. On a philosophical level, I have a problem with giving the state the authority to kill its citizens. Once you give the state that authority, it will yield it not only in the most extreme, cut-and-dry cases like this, but almost surely also in situations that are much more ambiguous (factually and/or morally).

        On a more practical level, I don’t think the government is capable of accurately determining who’s guilty and innocent on a consistent basis. Again, it’s pretty obvious in this case, but there’s no way to practically invoke the death penalty only for incidents where guilt is obvious. I’d rather let this asshole live to guarantee we don’t execute an innocent person later than execute him at the cost of also executing an innocent person.

        1. are we executing lots of innocents? Seems kinda doubtful given advances in DNA and other technology. As it is, the death penalty takes an absurdly long time to carry out even for monsters like Ted Bundy.

          Folks the Norwegian deserve an express lane to execution as his innocence is not in doubt by anyone. Let a relative of some victim be the one to push the button or whatever; if no relative is willing to do that, then he gets life.

        2. Personally, I see the problem as two-fold. On a philosophical level, I have a problem with giving the state the authority to kill its citizens.

          Exactly. I think this should be more of a “torn apart by lynch mob” type deal.

      2. I think this is why there should be capital punishment

        I disagree entirely. I do not believe the state is competent to either judge the quite-obviously evil (as evinced by the ruling and the rationale of the prosecution) – I instead prefer a free market alternative, which in this case would be determined by the market… all it would require is to tie the guy to a pole downtown Oslo somewhere, and ensure no police or other officials interfere with any particular community decision.

        I for one would bring dogs. Hungry dogs. And rubbing alcohol.

  8. The whole reason the prosecution was pushing like hell for the insanity plea was because of this 21 year max sentencing for murder (even multiple murders), and the obvious backlash it would cause.

    1. In other words, it might cause people to support harsher sentences for criminals, thus actually helping him to achieve at least one of the things he (presumably, as a right-wing extremist) wanted politically?

      At any rate, the guy was not insane, just evil. Perhaps dangerously sane, like Discworld’s Carcer.

      1. He’s a neo-Nazi, not a right wing extremist. Unless you’re one of those morons who thinks national socialism is somehow magically right wing.

        1. at least its an ethos.

          1. these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

        2. He’s not a Nazi of any sort. You would know that if you knew anything about what he believes.

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