29 August 2012

A sane mass murderer?

How can someone who has killed 77 people be considered sane? CyberShrink considers the verdict of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.


Cybershrink reviews the verdict on the Norwegian mass killer, and its wider implications.

This was a curious case. Usually in a criminal trial, the accused insists he didn't do it, and the state tries to prove that he did. Breivik proudly admitted killing all those people, but he didn't consider it murder - he preferred to think of it as almost a sanitary measure, to save his country from foreigners. OK, that argument wasn't going to get far in court.

But then, the issue became: was he insane, his actions decided by psychotic delusions, or was he sane, rationally choosing to act in this way, knowing it to be illegal, but believing it to further his political ideals. Usually, someone facing murder charges would prefer to be considered insane: the conditions in even a secure psychiatric hospital are generally better and safer than in prison, and there may be a chance of eventually being found sane and safe for release. And it avoids taking personal responsibility for one's awful deeds.

But this didn't suit Breivik at all. Norway is a curious country, and kinder than many. Even if guilty of killing dozens of innocent people, the maximum jail term is technically 21 years. This may seen absurdly limited, but if he's still considered a potential danger to society (and Breivik will always be considered this) they can be kept, with periodic reviews, indefinitely in prison. And if committed to a psychiatric facility, he could similarly be kept indefinitely. The actual outcome would in many ways be very similar.

Except for an issue crucial to Breivik - it'd see his political views dismissed as purely the products of a diseased or disordered mind, and nobody would need to take them as seriously as he wished; his beloved politics would be converted to mere psychopathological flotsam and jetsam. Ironically, while at the start and end of the trial he insisted that he does not recognise the court, he was apparently entirely satisfied to accept the court's opinion that he was sane.

Where the first shrinks went so wrong
It is in this murky area that the first psychiatrists who reviewed him were distressingly naïve and misled. His views are ugly, unrealistic, and don't in any way justify his actions. But they're not psychotic. Had he seriously held that the aliens endangering Norwegian society were little green men from Mars, here to probe and abduct, that would have been psychotic.

His views are dangerous and concerning precisely because they are not idiosyncratic inventions of a lonely loony, but because they are shared by many other sane but potentially dangerous people. Fortunately few share his ultimate conclusions or the actions he based on these.

His first assessors seemed too keen to detoxify his motivations and views. A common method for doing this to uncomfortable opinions, is to medicalise them, as psychopathology. They were absurdly and naïvely eager to fit him into a psychiatric diagnosis, and found him to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. They ignored the fact that people truly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia very rarely organise violent action against those they fear, and that his views were quite widespread and not unique and idiosyncratic.

They misdirected themselves. For instance, the Knights Templar he spoke of don't seem to exist, and there is no evidence that they do, other than his assertions. But this doesn't make this a delusion. It was, rather, a tactic, designed to make him seem an important part of a larger organisation rather than a solitary eccentric and to sow wider fears. His actions, remember, were those of a terrorist - designed to frighten and influence society at large.

Unlike a psychotic person, Breivik edited and modified his expression of his views, in the early police interviews and even in court, to suit his strategic ends.  He showed consistent control of his impulses, good mental abilities in planning and carrying out his grisly aims, and did this over the course of some years, which does not fit untreated paranoid schizophrenia. He lived normally and inconspicuously, in line with his over-all strategies, rather than being helplessly reclusive. He stayed in contact with selected friends right up to the attacks. Devoting much time to playing computer games is too common to be considered necessarily sinister.

Those first shrinks thought he showed blunting of the emotions, in responding calmly to autopsy reports and witness evidence. But he showed the psychopath's typical lack of sensitivity to the suffering of others, and these exhibits proved his success as he saw it. He remained deeply touched by his own issues, even weeping in court when his propaganda film was shown.

The first shrinks mistook his hyperbole and rhetoric for delusions. What would they make of the typical speeches of so many politicians? Yes, he saw himself as a crusader for good with the right to decide who lives and who dies. In his massacres he proved that he could and did exercise that right. This was sadly realistic, and not delusions of grandeur.

Yes indeed he fancied himself. Reportedly he had a "nose job" so as to look more Aryan, and was most concerned with how he looked, even using powder and makeup, and posing for those silly self-important photographs. But that's narcissism, and the entire basis of reality TV.

The good sense of the court
Unusually, faced with protests over the fatuous nature of this first report, the court ordered a second. This sensibly looked at the socio-political setting within which he was located, and his behaviour in jail, and found him sane, even if probably suffering a personality disorder. After the massacre I wrote that a primary challenge for the court would be to prevent him from grand-standing and using the occasion to trumpet his views, and that was done rather effectively.

A psychopath such as Breivik, narcissistic and exaggerating his own importance and significance, when playing any sport, cheats and manipulates so that he can win if at all possible, but he recognises what the game is, what the rules are, and seeks to manipulate them. The psychotic turns up at a tennis tournament wearing flippers and snorkel, cricket pads, and carrying a baseball bat and a soccer ball.

The events were horrifying, of course, but it was particularly severely troubling for Norwegians to face the fact that the murders were carried out not by a slavering alien terrorist, but a middle-class, white home-grown Norwegian, who left a badly-written and rambling political manifesto at least based on concerns and issues that are far from unique.

The uncomfortable fact wasn't that he held entirely rare and peculiar views, but that they were shared by significant numbers in European countries, though he then took them to obscene lengths, and assumed that the logical and necessary response was violence and mass murder. 

The issue of refugees and immigrants
To many of their citizens, some European governments have seemed to allow an overwhelming and troubling influx of foreigners in a way that seems unlimited or uncontrolled. Europe has historically been surprisingly tolerant of and welcoming to, foreign refugees and immigrants. But they never arrived on the scale seen in recent years, they were usually fleeing from very clearly understood persecution rather than only economic hardship, they usually brought needed skills and were often immediately or soon self-sustaining.

And they usually wished to assimilate to a significant degree, rather than insisting on remaining defiantly alien, maintaining islands of their own culture, language and customs, in some cases even complaining that the host nation should change its culture to match what they felt comfortable with.

The verdict avoided gracing Islamophobia with the protection of being some sort of clinical diagnosis rather than a chosen political viewpoint. It held him responsible for his choice of actions, rather than encouraging an excuse that " the devil (or my brain chemistry) made me do it ". Had he been found insane, any and every terrorist brought to court might have claimed an insanity defence.

It may have seemed tedious and cruel that so many details of his crimes were spelled out in court, as he had acknowledged doing all of that - but it was important to have this all on record for some later date when he might seek release from prison, when witnesses might be dead or no longer available.

The gentle social reactions of the people of Norway, and his sentence being purely in line with Norwegian law and custom, showed that he had not changed the society as he wanted to do. The court was admirably sensible in its conclusions; far more sensible, well-informed and critically logical than, for instance, any court that has so far considered the claims of the Dewani defence.

(Professor MA Simpson, aka CyberShrink, August 2012)




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