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.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mass murderers heart Melanie Phillips

While it’s difficult to find a silver lining to the mass murder of 76 human beings in Norway, it was hard to suppress a smirk at the news that killer Anders Behring Breivik had quoted Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips in his rambling manifesto.

Her initial response to this unnerving fact was to stress that Breivik had only quoted her twice in 1,500 pages - which is, let's face it, still not a great hit-rate.

But let’s be clear, there’s a world of difference between Breivik and Phillips. While her views might be repugnant, I think we can safely say that Melanie Phillips does not condone the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, even if they are card-carrying Labour Party members (now mass detention, that’s another story. No no, I jest.)

In fairness to Phillips, Breivik did also quote such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Orwell, and an author has no control over who reads their material. Was it J.D. Salinger's fault that the Catcher in the Rye "inspired" a psychotic Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon? Clearly not.

But the episode does serve to underline the danger of Phillips's intemperate words, her intolerance and hyperbole. She believes her tirades exist on some rarefied intellectual plane, and Keith Kahn-Harris may well be right when he says she is "polite company with a ready (if sometimes acidic) wit and a very sharp mind", but if you write incendiary words, there's always a chance they'll come back to bite you on the ass.

Phillips, a former Guardian staffer, seems to get much of the left foaming at the mouth, but the main emotion she evokes in me is sadness. I still remember reading this interview and thinking she sounded like the angriest, loneliest woman in the world.