Friday, 29 July 2011

Was the Utøya killer Anders Behring Breivik insane?

First, a confession. The Golden Latrine has a huge journalistic crush on Deborah Orr, she's one of the few columnists able to get inside a story and tease out its subtleties and absurdities. Hence my joy when I read this piece, from Thursday’s Guardian, where she makes the same point as me about Melanie Phillips not being to blame for being quoted in Utoya killer Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto.

But where our views massively diverge is when she then goes on to argue that Breivik is clearly mad, railing against what she calls “the widespread reluctance to characterise outrageous miscreants as insane.” As Orr puts it:

I'd suggest that all indiscriminate acts of murder are most profitably viewed as symptoms of mental illness, and that a more universal reluctance to describe attempts at mass-murder as "terrorism" might be an eminently sensible way to go in the future. Those who attempt to justify such acts, as logical or understandable? They seem pretty unstable to me themselves.”

But is this true? Does mass murder automatically equal insanity? I think in this case, I have reluctantly to declare myself one of what she calls the "unstable" ones. The 'you have to be mad to be capable of mass murder' thesis is certainly a convenient belief, but I'm not sure it's true. As Guy Walters persuasively argues in the New Statesman:

If you passionately believe you are right, and you feel you have no other method of obtaining your goal, then killing is a very logical thing to do. This is undoubtedly a normative form of human behaviour, as human beings have been killing each other for the "right reasons" for millennia. Many of us are repelled by the act of murder and, thankfully, we do not resort to it even if we believe the other side is wrong. But some do kill others to advance their interests, or to stymie those of others, especially if they believe that a greater threat is posed to society by not carrying out the killings.

Was every member of the IRA or ETA mad? Were these groups just clubs for the psychotic or psychopathic? Surely not. While for some it may have just been a convenient ideological excuse to blow people up, many members genuinely carried the belief that such action would further their legitimate political cause. The skill of Chris Morris's suicide bomber "comedy" Four Lions was in showing that most suicide bombers are just angry, confused teenagers, not psychopathic criminal masterminds.

Breivik's lawyer, Geir Lippestad, is clearly of Orr's persuasion, telling journalists that "This whole case indicated that he is insane," and refusing to represent him unless he undertook psychiatric evaluation. But so far the only evidence suggesting mental illness is Lippestad's claim that Breivik is a "very cold person". No hearing voices, no disordered thoughts, no hallucinations. By declaring that Breivik is automatically mad, we are letting human nature off the hook.


- said...

Well said, great blog

- said...

well said!