Psychology/Psychiatry

Anders Breivik, Psycho Killer?

The mass murderer's sentencing highlights the fine line between ideology and insanity.

|

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. 

NEXT: Nevada's Ron Paul Kerfuffle on the Convention Floor

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Kill a few people, they call you a murderer. Kill a million and you’re a conqueror.
    -Eric Qualen

    And Breivik is nuts.

    1. I like how he’s giving your sign in that picture. Or he supports the Black Panthers or something.

      1. Either way, he’s doing it wrong.

        1. You just made the list, pal.

  2. How could the nords tell if he was insane – they must all be crazy, kill 70 people and get a 21 year sentence.

    1. In some ways it’s worse than that – they can decide to keep you locked up after you serve your sentence. An up front life sentence seems more honest. Humaneness doesn’t seem to enter into it since they’re going to do it anyway.

      1. In this case its not. He’s been declared as sane – that means that there would be no justification to hold him for psychiatric treatment after his 21 year sentence was up.

        Unless they’re going to find him insane in the next 2 decades, he walks at the end of his sentence.

        1. I don’t have a source handy, but I have read that they are allowed to continue to hold you post-sentence, not just for psychiatric treatment, but if you are judged a danger to society.

          The NY Times says

          If he is not considered a threat after serving his sentence, the maximum available under Norwegian law, he will be eligible for release in 2033, at the age of 53.

          However, his demeanor, testimony and declaration that he would have liked to kill more people helped convince the judges that, however lenient the sentence seems, Mr. Breivik is unlikely ever to be released from prison. He could be kept there indefinitely by judges adding a succession of five-year extensions to his sentence.

          but they don’t cite anything in particular.

          1. That’s what all the radio was saying too. Not that it makes it true, just perhaps more likely to be true.

  3. 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.

    This actually is extraordinarily dangerous, so I think Sullum’s concern here is well taken.

    Not liking people and being angry and hostile about their motives, while remaining lucid about their actual acts, is not paranoid schizophrenia.

    If a nation introduces multicultural education into its schools, for example, and someone looks at that act and decides to assign it hostile motivation, like “The people doing that want to destroy the white race!” that’s bigotry and a lack of intellectual charity, but it’s not paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenia is “There are alien monsters living in the pipes at our schools and they suck out the souls of children. I know this because my cat told me.”

    The alternative is to say that each and every instance where anyone fails to immediately believe the stated motivation for any political act is “paranoid”, and if we really think your hostility and distrust doesn’t make sense to us, it’s schizophrenia.

    By the standard applied to declare Breivik “insane”, rather than hostile and uncharitable, the posters at Jezebel and at Kos would declare each and every one of us insane, too. Because we look at the stated motivations for their political acts and declare them false. Bottom line.

    1. By the standard applied to declare Breivik “insane”, rather than hostile and uncharitable, the posters at Jezebel and at Kos would declare each and every one of us insane, too.

      Well, to be fair they might be correct in a couple of cases.

    2. You’re exactly right. At its core it’s nothing more than an attempt to automatically demonize or marginalize other ways of thinking without having to confront the thoughts and intellectually disprove them. This road ends with re-education camps, though they may have different names. At issue is the very right to hold a different opinion.

    3. If a nation introduces multicultural education into its schools, for example, and someone looks at that act and decides to assign it hostile motivation, like “The people doing that want to destroy the white race!” that’s bigotry and a lack of intellectual charity, but it’s not paranoid schizophrenia.

      You’re missing that they also take into considerations his actions. No, coming to the same conclusion he did is not para/schiz, but then making the leap that “I have come to a rational conclusion, therefore the best action I can take is to car bomb something and then shoot the hell out of a tangentially related group of teens and teen-herders” could be considered, in scientific terms, cray-cray.

      Now what our Jez and Kos friends fail to take into account is that not everyone who comes to those conclusions will then also make that same exact action.

      1. You’re missing that they also take into considerations his actions. No, coming to the same conclusion he did is not para/schiz, but then making the leap that “I have come to a rational conclusion, therefore the best action I can take is to car bomb something and then shoot the hell out of a tangentially related group of teens and teen-herders” could be considered, in scientific terms, cray-cray.

        I guess that’s possible, but the entire study of political philosophy boils down to trying to determine when one should undertake politically-motivated violence…and no one has ever been able to “prove” a standard for that.

        Basically in practice the only standard out there is, “Well, if you’re really pissed off, rebel, and if you win that retroactively proves you were right.”

        There have been revolutions for pretty specious reasons, throughout history. Reasons like “the wrong nephew of the dead king is being made the new king”. Were the people who fought those wars insane?

        1. I don’t know, they might have been. It’s not like insane people haven’t been occasionally very successful in this world.

          I mean to me the litmus test would have to be the whole ‘chance at winning’ thing. I mean if you can rally enough people behind the ‘support the king’s OTHER nephew’ banner to challenge the standing army, then maybe you weren’t crazy.

          However, if you think crashing your cessna into a building the IRS rents is going to change anything, then maybe you were crazy.

          On the other hand, if you just decide “I want attention for this issue, and the surest way to get it is to commit a violent act, even if it takes my life,” that’s to me is where the jury’s out. I mean you made a logical and reasonable conclusion, but you still did something that most people wouldn’t.

          I think there’s also plenty of times when politically-motivated violence is justified but you still have no chance of winning or effecting change.

          I also don’t know that we can call groups paranoid/schizophrenic or psychotic, but we can certainly cal individuals that. And the fact that there are chemicals that encourage or discourage the acts we would generally consider to fall in those categories seems to hold that they actually exist.

          1. Were people who set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War crazy?

            Was it insane to do anything like that, in support of a nationalist communist movement? (Whatever one thinks of US involvement there, it’s not like the other side was worth dying for, either.)

            Was it stupid? Senseless? Was it martyrdom?

            Honestly, I have never figured out a satisfactory answer, myself.

        2. What about something that wasn’t so specious?

          Take the famous abolitionist rebel John Brown, executed by hanging, by the United States no less, in 1859. Within a few years, a song celebrating him was the popular marching song of the United States Army.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown‘s_Body

          It became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, probably second only to the National Anthem as a recognizable patriotic American song, still today.

        3. Were the people who fought those wars insane?

          Wath MacBeth thane?

          Stolen from Twisted Tales from Shakespeare by Richard Armour.

          Incidentally, everything I know about American history I learned from Armour’s It all Started with Columbus.

          1. Damn, no Richard Armour fans.

            No one remembers high school English.

            Time to take me to the glue factory.

    4. Jodie Foster is not impressed.

  4. My wonder is if his plan has actually, in some minor way, worked. Norway’s not huge, but let’s assume that the population stays relatively the same for the next twenty years (I know that’s a false assumption, one look at their ‘native’ birth-rate vs. their immigration rate shows that in 20 years it will look very different). Now, I don’t know about other countries, but where I’m from, everyone that was a congressional page, or vehemently involved in Young Republicans or anything similar is indeed involved in government some 20 years later.

    Breivik has taken out, what seems to me, to be a significant amount of ‘politically active’ people from a certain generation. I’m sure he’s created a few from the same generation as well, but who knows. So will we see a gap in 20 years in the Socialist Left where some of those 67 would have been, or will they be filled in? I know in the US they’d obviously be filled in, we’re big enough that it would take several orders of magnitude more to be removed from the pool to make a difference. But in Norway? I wonder.

    1. I wonder too. His methods were immoral and criminal, but I’m not sure his intentions were irrational.

      The American equivalent would have been if Brevik had killed the next nine graduating classes of Harvard Law School. It’d be hard to argue that wouldn’t have an effect on the Left in the coming decades.

      1. The American equivalent would have been if Brevik had killed the next nine graduating classes of Harvard Law School. It’d be hard to argue that wouldn’t have an effect on the Left in the coming decades.

        It’s actually more specious than killing Harvard grads. This camp was designed specifically as a socialist breeding ground. An indoctrination camp in the guise of “helping young people create the world they want.” It seems cruel to indoctrinate young people in this manner, especially politically, and at such a young age. And I agree that Breivik’s actions just might skew the numbers the next generation of Norwegian socialists downward. At teh same time, however, it might also make others of this generation, especially survivors, even more vigilant in their socialism.

        For a truly chilling story of what happened that day, check out this article. It’s quite uncomfortable to read, but it’s a good read.

  5. I’m the son of two Austrian immigrants, both of whom experienced Nazism firsthand, and whose parents managed to keep them out of the Hitler Youth. My father’s family narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

    I think Hayek and Hoffer should be required reading for every college freshman.

    So, all of that said, a Labor Party Summer camp is a lot scarier to me, than Breivik, and all the other one-off nutcases you can name.

  6. In light of such diametrically opposed conclusions based on the same evidence, one might wonder whether it qualifies as a science at all.

    This. I remember reading a story, possibly apocryphal, of a law passed in New Mexico that would have required any mental health professional testifying in court to don a robe and pointed hat adorned with crescent moons, stars and metors during his testimony, during which the lights would be dimmed and he would be required to wave a wand. I read it was vetoed by the Governor…too bad, I think it was quite fitting.

  7. French Essayist Blames Multiculturalism for Breivik’s Killing Spree

    New essays by French author Richard Millet, which say Anders Behring Breivik’s Norwegian massacre was the result of immigration and multiculturalism, have caused an uproar in France

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.