Anders Breivik Says He Is Sane. I Believe Him.
With his trial now in its 11th week, the prosecutors of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist and terrorist who killed nearly eighty people last year, most of them children and teenagers, are claiming that he is insane and asking the court to remand him to a psychiatric facility. Psychiatric evaluations prepared in the course of Breivik’s prosecution are mixed at best. Earlier attempts to characterize him as a paranoid schizophrenic have now largely been abandoned. At this stage, the prosecution and its experts are low-balling it, throwing out, blunderbuss-style, such possibilities as Asperger’s syndrome,Tourette’s syndrome, narcissistic personality disorder and psychotic personality disorder, although I am not sure that last one is even a recognized diagnosis. Anyway, what a pack of nonsense.
“Oh?” a reader might ask, “And who are you to say that? Are you a psychiatrist?” Well, no, I am not a psychiatrist. But here is what I see: I see a man with no significant documented history of mental illness, no hallucinations or delusions (except in a broad, rhetorical sense), a man who is intelligent, lucid, articulate and fully in control of his actions. I see psychiatrists who can’t come to a consensus, and the most amenable of whom merely say that it’s “plausible” Breivik suffers from some “personality disorders”, plus Asperger’s syndrome — a fashionable diagnosis these days, casually slapped on anyone who exhibits a combination of habitual grumpiness and above-average intelligence. And I see a “clever” prosecutor, who is trying to co-opt medicine as a bandaid to patch a fault in the Norwegian justice system.
The public’s comments on this development reveal precisely what is so tempting in the idea of dismissing Breivik as a madman.
It is said, for instance, that adjudging Breivik insane is a good way to deprive his views of any hint of legitimacy. Right, because nothing puts a grandiose mass murderer in his place like an acquittal. But beyond that, I hope that in this age of runaway medicalization, enough people realize that we have a big problem on our hands if the best way to demonstrate how someone’s political ideas lack legitimacy is to declare that person insane. Islamophobia as a symptom of a disordered mind? Oh yeah, that couldn’t possibly backfire. I am not going to predict if and when religious fundies of all stripes will fall back on punitive psychiatry in order to marginalize law-abiding people who say something not nice about religion or the religious, up to and including forcible commitment — but we definitely should not open that door. At all. Not even a crack. Medicalizing political dissent is a cynical totalitarian method used to enforce ideological conformity, and liberal, democratic societies should never resort to it, not even against someone as repulsive as Breivik — lest it comes back to haunt them, as it certainly has in recent history.
The more elusive form of temptation is, I think, the desire to make the dilemma that Breivik represents seem smaller than it really is. It is easier to see his extreme views and his willingness to kill lots of people at random as a problem that can, at least in theory, be solved by scientific means — with a drug or a particularly effective method of therapy. Social and political problems, by contrast, are infinitely more difficult to address, and the results of any remedy are far less certain. It is easier to believe that what happened in Norway last year is an anomaly, the product of one deranged mind — rather than the implementation of ideas that, sadly, have truck with a small, but dangerous minority of people. If we determine that Breivik is insane, then we don’t have to confront the problem of festering extremism in the world, and in our own backyards. We can just throw him in a looney bin and go back to living on autopilot.
I would point out, lastly, that neither Asperger’s syndrome, nor Tourette’s syndrome, nor any of the myriad “personality disorders” actually amount to insanity. The American justice system certainly has its problems, but one of the things I like in it is that the definition of “insanity” necessary to get someone absolved of responsibility for a crime is really narrow. As for some degree of mental problems, the DSM has become so monstrously padded, virtually anyone can be diagnosed with something, given an incentive, and in any event, the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from ailments that also “plausibly” afflict Breivik don’t go around killing people, nor do they belong in a mental institution.
Taking the DSM at face value, the great majority of us have some degree or another of mental illness, yet most of us still know right from wrong, and are perfectly capable of using that knowledge to guide our actions. From everything we know about him, so did Breivik.
Declaring Breivik insane would have far-ranging and mostly negative consequences for society. His mommy issues do not justify it. Make counseling and psychiatric care available to him, if he wants it, by all means. I have no problem with society funding it if he really does want to address his narcissistic personality disorder, his psychotic personality disorder, his asshole personality disorder, his contemptible mass murderer of children personality disorder, or what have you. I just really think he should have to do so in prison. And he should stay there for the rest of his life.
There is no such thing as a “just world”. Some people are just bad, despite being in their right mind and having had more or less ordinary childhoods. The sooner we start accepting this fact, the better it will be both for our liberty and our safety.