Sane or Insane? The Trial of Anders Behring Breivik.

Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered 77 people in a twin bomb and gun attack on 22nd July, 2011 in Norway is currently standing trial for his shocking crimes. What has held the media's attention is not only the scale and barbarity of this attack, but also Breivik's motivations for committing the murders. A holder of extreme right-wing opinions, Brevik has stated that he acted to defend Europe against a Muslim "invasion", which was being enabled by what he called "cultural Marxists" in Norway's Labour Party and the EU.
In November of last year, Brevik was, not surprisingly, assessed by psychiatrists to determine whether these were the acts of a sane or "criminally insane" man. The conclusion then was that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and that he was in a psychotic state both before and after the attacks took place. The two psychiatrists who interviewed him on 13 occasions concluded that he lived in his "own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions".
However, this conclusion was met with surprise and disbelief by many in Norway. One man remarked, "I don't see how Behring Breivk's opinions set him apart from war criminals who are tried in court as if they are sane". The deputy leader of the opposition Progress Party, Per Sandberg, had a similar point of view, stating that the conclusion that Breivik was "criminally insane" was "completely incomprehensible", and asked the question, "how can someone who has planned his actions for such a long time... be considered insane?".
To my mind, this raises some important questions about the nature of sanity and insanity, and how we, as a culture, view it. Indeed, just because Breivik holds such extreme views, which may appear delusional, does that necessarily mean that he is not in his right mind? Does this just prove that what we view as "insane" is largely governed by our own set of cultural assumptions and beliefs?
Of course, Breivik's beliefs and actions, to any rational mind, appear insane. But, it seems that the media portrayal of Brevik acting in a planned and deliberate manner does not gel with the public's idea of  "a paranoid schizophrenic". So, the question remains - just because we find his ideas and actions abhorrent, does it then follow that the man is insane?
Breivik himself remarked, in his ongoing trial, that he heard "100 voices" in his head, telling him not to do what he did, but that he went ahead and pulled the trigger anyway. To me, this does not sound like he was under the spell of the commanding voices which can sometimes appear in schizophrenic illness, but rather that these were the voices of conscience, which Breivik, in his extremely misguided mind, chose to ignore.
As I have written in this blog, sometimes people just do bad things. Just because one has a mental illness it does not necessarily follow that one will act badly, just as it does not follow that just because one doesn't have a mental illness one will act well.
The question of whether Breivik is indeed insane, however, remains, for the present, unanswered. The court has yet to decide if this is the case. Whatever the conclusion, it is certain that he will be incarcerated, whether it be in jail or hospital. If he is judged to be insane, then I think this raises serious questions about how we, as a society, view insanity. If not, then this just proves how "insane" some "sane" people can be.       


Dixie said…
Hi David.
A compelling post. Lots of things to factor in. I would not want to be in the jury pool. I suppose if there's one thing that rises to the top of my mind... it is the fact that I believe violence is never the answer. I simply don't understand how he came to the conclusion that he did, resulting in the murder of 77 people. But therein lies a key. His thinking, his beliefs motivated his action. Now, if that were me, I'd have to say, yes, I was insane. I would not be in my right mind to consider murder as a accomplishment to my belief system.
However it doesn't mean that his probe of the situation (thinking the country under attack) made him feel insane enough to carry out this deed. It appears he was comfortable with his conclusion. In fact he sounds quite sane to me.
I've no experince concerning the schizophrenic issues, so I have no way of knowing what might be the normal. For him to ignore listening to a 100 voices might seem extreme to me, but then again, we're talking about what's normal and sane for him. His own words cast him in a light of complete responsibility regarding the judicial outcome. He has in no way invoked an insanity plea with the court. Then again it this sane?
Well, I find I'm traveling the same circle of thought: Is he or Isn't he? Either way he's due his day in court. I'll be following along. (Tough one Dave).
David said…
Dear Dixie,
This is indeed a "tough one".
I think the fact that he has shown no remorse over his crimes makes it an even tougher call. He appears still to believe fervently in his extreme cause, which led him to commit the murders. But, to me, if those beliefs were the result of psychosis, which, as far as I know, is usually a temporary state, wouldn't he eventually "come down", as it were, from this state, and at least show some remorse over what he has done? I have sometimes written in this blog about how one can regret past behaviour when one has been ill, but this would seem alien to Breivik. So, to my mind, he is either deeply ill, or just a very misguided fanatic, which I suppose doesn't really answer the question!
Anyway, it will be up to the Norwegian court to decide, and it will be an interesting and important decision. If he is judged insane, for example, how will this affect how we see other terrorist acts and beliefs?
Thanks for your thoughts, Dixie.
Very Best Wishes,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
As Dixie alluded too, this was a compelling post and indeed, raises even more questions, which invariably, there may be no answer too.
I think you may well be right that the symbolism of the "100 voices" in his head he chose to disregard, might just be the representation of his conscience. This could be a case of someone, through warped delusions, bringing a fantasy world into a horrific reality.
It is rather chilling to watch him without even a trace of remorse. This is indeed a perplexing situation which also raises the question of whether one can be born 'evil' or does evil happen due to warped situations.
With respect, Gary
David said…
Dear Gary,
As you have said there are no easy answers to this, and, after all, we're not psychiatrists and we haven't interviewed Breivik like the ones who came to the conclusion that he was insane have. But, it is his lack of remorse and the fact that he still holds his extreme beliefs that I find perplexing. As I said to Dixie, surely, if he were in the throes of psychosis during the attacks, then he would eventually return from that state and come to regret his actions. I wonder if he has had any treatment yet for the condition he was said to have.
Anyway, I'd like to think that no one is actually born evil, but only come to do such things through, as you put it, "warped situations". But that's a question for another time, my hairy friend.
Very Best Wishes to you, Tristan and, of course, Penny the modest internet star,
bazza said…
Hello David. You have, of course, put your finger on the pulse of a perpetual dilemma. There is probably not an exact line of demarcation around various degrees of insanity but, instead, a sliding-scale of intensity, as with many illnesses.
In a way I believe that the notion of insanity is not relevant here because the thinking of all of us is shaped by our genes as modified by our life-experiences. This action is at one extremity of that paradigm. I wonder what RD Laing would have made of him?
In a similar way, not being religious, I also reject the notion of good and evil.
Finally, I think is it sad to see, as so often, that all of the attention in this awful tragedy is on the accused and none on the victims and their families.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’
David said…
Dear bazza,
I agree that mental illness exists on a sort of sliding scale. We are all at some point on that scale, going from the "normal" to the "abnormal", or ill. I think the question of insanity is relevant here, though, because if he is declared insane that somehow would seem to absolve him of at least some of the responsibility for his actions, which, I presume, would be hard for the families of the victims you mention to swallow.
Also, if the plea of insanity were to be removed, I feel that genuine cases may be placed in the wrong institution (i.e prison instead of hospital), and already many people with mental illness seem to find themselves in prison rather than a place where they can get treatment. Despite what a lot of Laing said about the world being insane rather than the individual (and I hope I'm right about that!), I think mental illness in individuals is a reality. Of course it may be the reult of genetic and environmental causes (although no one actually knows what directly causes schizophrenia), I think we should be creful not to fall into a mindset which views everyone, even if they are severely ill, as equally responsible for what they do. Having been in a psychotic state myself, I can attest that it is only now that I'm well that I feel more "in control" of myself.
Thanks for your comment, bazza.
Very Best Wishes,

Popular Posts