Anders Breivik: Narcissist. Murderer. Insane?
The case of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and the island of UtØya in July 2011 is unusual, to say the least. Not only were the killings horrific in their calm and calculated brutality, but at the trial the prosecution argued that Breivik was insane and should be detained for psychiatric treatment, whereas the defence argued that he was criminally responsible and should be sent to prison.
Breivik regards himself as a political warrior, an heroic visionary with a calling to sacrifice his freedom for his struggle against Islam and multiculturalism. He preferred to be treated as a criminal – recognised as being of sound mind and responsible for his actions – rather than to be declared insane and ‘sentenced’ to psychiatric treatment for an indefinite period. For him, this would have been the most degrading outcome imaginable – a fate worse than death.
Yet it is exactly this that the judges had to consider. Did he act with sufficient criminal responsibility or mens rea to be fit for normal punishment, or was he insane? Two psychiatric reports on him reached opposite conclusions, and it is not hard to see the attraction of both views.
On the one hand, all criminal justice systems assume that people do wicked things, knowingly and voluntarily. That is why these systems exist in the first place. Whether or not criminals are convinced of their own rectitude is neither here nor there. In Breivik’s case, the fact that he believed it was justifiable and heroic to terrorise, main and kill large numbers of teenagers who had never harmed him, is if anything an aggravating factor rather than a mitigating one, in that it shows something very bad about his moral orientation.
On the other hand, some crimes are so terrible and out of the ordinary that it seems natural to conclude that the perpetrators must be somehow ‘mad’. Breivik’s crimes were hideous, and this, along with his strange account of himself as a ‘Knight Templar’ leading a resistance organisation, and his rambling internet manifesto, makes it tempting to think that he was so clearly out of touch with reality as to cast serious doubt upon his criminal responsibility.
In English law, the test for criminal insanity is known as the ‘M’Naghten Rules’, which date from 1843. Under these ‘rules’ a defendant can be found to be lacking mens rea (a ‘guilty mind’) if, when he committed a crime, he was labouring under a ‘defect of reason’ or ‘disease of the mind’ which prevented him from knowing the ‘nature and quality’ of the act he committed, or ‘that it was wrong’ (i.e. that it violated accepted societal norms).
The wording is antiquated, but an obvious candidate for a ‘disease of the mind’ would be a delusional disorder. There are, of course, other circumstances that can count against criminal responsibility, but if a such a mental disorder sufficiently negates responsibility, then there is a legal defence against a criminal charge. The same basic idea is found in all Western judicial systems, and reflects the common sense idea that to be legally (or morally) responsible for an action, one must possess the capacity for adequate knowledge and free will, with respect to that action.
The term ‘delusion’ is hard to define precisely. Someone who is convinced that he is Jesus is regarded as deluded, whereas someone who is sure he will win the National Lottery jackpot is seen as merely irrational. Nor are all delusions false – as the saying has it, the fact that I’m paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get me. The demarcation line between deluded and ordinarily irrational beliefs can be hard to draw, but psychiatrists classify delusions as firm beliefs held on inadequate grounds, completely impervious to contrary evidence, and socially unsupported.
Breivik’s world view might seem to fit this description. However, we should remember that it is not a particularly uncommon one – many people fear the rise of Islam and despise ‘liberal complacency’ about it, and Breivik’s self-description as a Knight Templar does not imply that he thinks he literally lives in the Middle Ages. All kinds of conspiracy theories thrive everywhere – that 9/11 was in ‘inside job’, that Man never landed on the Moon, and so on – and while we might think their purveyors odd, obsessive and in need of a life, it is going too far to classify them as psychotic.
In reality, what is different about Breivik – apart, obviously, from the horrendous action he undertook – is his extreme narcissism. The second psychiatric report concluded as much, and indeed ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ is found in the psychiatric lexicon. He clearly thought that he was a special person – a Man of Destiny for whom the normal rules of morality had been waived. Nor did he lack a moral sense; rather, like Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, he worked on overcoming his feelings of compassion for the sake of a higher cause. This is what his bizarre and solitary ‘training’ was all about.
Does this alarming character trait rule out criminal responsibility? The mere fact that extreme narcissism is classified by psychiatry as a personality disorder does not have this implication. It is arguable, in fact, that such conditions should not properly be the concern of psychiatrists anyway. Many of us know people like him, albeit to a much lesser degree. They are difficult and unpleasant to deal with, but they are not literally delusional. Breivik is a man of extreme self-importance who deliberately made himself cruel. That is why the verdict was just – notwithstanding the irony that it was the one that Breivik and his defence team were so anxious to secure.
Dr Piers Benn is a philosopher and medical ethicist. He is a producer and speaker on ‘Religion, Spirituality or Neither?’ at the 2012 Battle of Ideas Festival.Tagged in: Anders Breivik, Anders Breivik verdict, conspiracy theory, crime, criminal responsibility, insanity, islam, murder, M’Naghten Rules, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, oslo
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