Notes from the Margins | The Madness of Anders Breivik

In this month's column, Matt Carr looks at the case of Anders Breivik, perpetrator of the Oslo Massacres of last July, whose trial starts today.

New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Monday, April 16, 2012 12:03 - 6 Comments

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Anders Breivik makes a farright salute as he enters court on first day of his trial (16 April 2012)

Earlier today (Monday 16th April 2012) saw he start of the trial of Norwegian anti-Muslim extremist Anders Breivik, over the twin atrocities that he perpetrated on 22 July last year, when he detonated a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight people and went on to murder 69, mostly teenagers, at the Norwegian Labour Party’s summer camp on Utoeya island.

Breivik was charged withperforming an act of terrorism in the form of murder, with the intention of destabilising the basic functions of society’ – a crime which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years.  Despite – or perhaps because of – the magnitude of his crimes, the trial has already generated an extraordinary and in many ways unprecedented legal battle, in which the prosecution, rather than the defence, is calling for Breivik to be confined to a psychiatric institution rather than prison.

Breivik, meanwhile, has instructed his defence lawyer to argue that he was sane, even though this will almost certainly result in a  maximum prison sentence if  successful. As Breivik himself is clearly aware, the question of his sanity is not without political repercussions. Initial reports by two court-appointed psychiatrists last year concluded that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who inhabited his ‘own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions.’

These conclusions were contested by lawyers acting on behalf of some of Breivik’s victims. And in January, four prison psychiatrists contradicted this diagnosis and declared that Breivik was not psychotic and showed no sign of insanity. Today, a second psychiatric evaluation has found him “sane enough to face trial and a jail term”. Both reports will be considered by the court before it makes its decision.

It’s  easy to see why Breivik himself is so determined to prove his sanity. His bizarre photographs dressed in a ‘military’ uniform that he designed himself or posing in a frogman suit bearing the label ‘Marxist hunter’ suggest a narcissist who has spent much of his time looking at himself in a real or imaginary mirror, rehearsing what he regarded as a grandiose act of cultural/nationalist resistance.

From Breivik’s point of view therefore, a verdict of  insanity would diminish the heroic image that he wished to present to the world and trivialise what he called the ‘gruesome but necessary’ acts that he perpetrated on  July 22 – acts that he clearly intended to be inspirational.

Some might argue that the mere fact that he takes pride in such horrendous acts is itself proof of his insanity, but he is not the first person to depict mass murder of civilians as a heroic and grandiose act.  The perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States clearly regarded these atrocities in very similar terms, yet few people would seek an explanation for their action in insanity.

Political murder, even on the scale of ruthlessness and brutality that Breivik displayed, cannot in itself be considered an indicator of mental health. Breivik’s dire warnings of the imminent Islamic cultural and religious domination of Europe may well have been delusional and paranoid, but his extremism belongs to an extremist and alarmist discourse on Muslims, Islam and immigration that is shared by politicians, media pundits,  far-right political parties and ‘defence leagues’  across the continent.

Established historians, journalists and scholars have all subscribed to the notion that Europe is being inexorably transformed into an Islamic colony called ‘Eurabia’ – a term that Breivik uses various times in his Internet manifesto.

The Internet is awash with videos like the one he produced to accompany and justify his crimes, in which images of cathedrals, Mozart and Beethoven and the other treasures of European civilisation are juxtaposed with photographs of Muslim terrorists and jihadists, or fringe radical Islamist groups as evidence of the barbarian enemy within.

Breivik was in contact with some of the websites and organisations that propagate such views. In his ‘manifesto’ he also cited more mainstream commentators and politicians, who  routinely promote catastrophic scenarios of a Europe drifting into the arms of Islam, and denounce ‘multiculturalism’ and immigration as twin threats to national or European identity.

Anyone familiar with the writings of a Melanie Phillips or an Oriana Fallaci, for example, will find views on Muslim immigration that are virtually identical to Breivik’s – without the homicidal intent. Nor was Breivik’s image of himself as an implacable warrior/avenger/executioner entirely original.

To support their diagnosis of insanity, the two court psychiatrists cited some of the more outlandish mythologies that Breivik constructed around himself, such as his claims to be the ‘perfect knight’ and the ‘ Justiciar Knight Commander of the Knights Templar order’.

But the fantasies that this self-styled ‘perfect knight’ constructed around himself are hardly unique to him. Pre-Nazi racial occultists such as Guido von List and Jorg Lans von Liebenfels constructed even more elaborate and outlandish mythologies about the mystical origins of the ‘Aryan’ people to support their racist and anti-Semitic views.

Such mythologies have often accompanied extreme violence. Himmler’s  fascination with pre-modern racial history and the medieval Teutonic Knights is well-known. The SS chief  even created a special institute of scholars and archaeologists to prove some of his crackpot mystical and racial theories and built a castle where his SS ‘knights’ would gather like some chivalric order.

To some extent therefore, Breivik is a twenty-first century manifestation of a reactionary, anti-enlightenment and quasi-mystical romanticism that has always been intrinsic to the European far-right, and which continues to underpin the more exclusionary mythologies based on culture rather than race, which its contemporary descendants are invoking as a new basis for the exclusion and victimisation of the Other.

If Breivik’s views were irrational, his conception of violence belongs to a very rational tradition of ‘terrorist’ violence with its own recurring motifs. Like Mohammed Merah’s murder spree inToulouse, it belongs to the category of ‘leaderless resistance’, whereby individuals and small groups carry out acts of violence on their own account, within the broad rubric of a shared cause.

Breivik’s attacks on the ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘traitors’ who he claimed were paving the way for the downfall of Norway and Europe, were intended to  inspire similar acts elsewhere in the continent, and they may yet succeed.

Across the continent, neo-Nazi and far-right groups have already  carried out fire-bombings, physical attacks and killings of foreigners, Roma and Muslim immigrants, and some are dreaming of the same European civil war that Breivik believed he was participating in.

For all these reasons, a verdict of insanity would be a seriously misleading and reductionist explanation for the atrocious events of last July, which would obscure, rather than clarify its context and motivations.

If Norway– and Europe– are to have a chance of preventing similar crimes in the future and detoxifying the political climate that made it possible, then Breivik’s atrocities cannot be dismissed as a freakish aberration perpetrated by a madman.

And I may not be a psychiatrist, but on the question of Breivik’s sanity, I have to say that on this issue – and only this – I agree with his own assessment; I hope that the court judges him to be sane and puts him away for as long as the law allows.

Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His next book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

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helen
Apr 17, 2012 0:59

the criticism againt the two first court appointed psychiatrists was that they had no clue about the whole “eurabia”-theory and the milieu’s subscribing to those kind of thoughts, therefor to them, to them, it seemed like he himself had made up that kind of worldview and he alone believed in it. but, they were proven wrong, and not many psychiatrists agreed with them. (i live in norway)

Discussing Breivik | Matt Carr's Infernal Machine
Apr 17, 2012 8:58

[...] But his crimes were nevertheless political crimes, and it’s important to see them as such.  The prosecution is seeking to prove that Breivik was insane, and I wrote a piece for Ceasefire magazine yesterday on why I hope that does not happen, which you can find here. [...]

Peter Gilkes
Apr 17, 2012 13:42

He said that the worst thing that could happen to him was to be declared insane and be placed in a psychiatric institution. That suggests, to me, what the verdict should be.

Matt Carr
Apr 18, 2012 9:24

From Breivik’s point of view, commitment to a psychiatric institution would certainly be worse than imprisonment. But it would also be seriously reductionist, shifting public attention away from the crucial questions of his linkages, affiliations and political ideas to the more comforting explanation of individual pathology.

Breivik’s frequent use of the first person plural in his racist diatribe yesterday may or may not refer to actual organizational links, but it certainly does include a wide consensus of opinion that spans mainstream conservatives and the ‘counter-jihad’ movement.

Warren
Jun 14, 2012 15:51

Hi Matt
Thanks for the piece, it got me thinking.

I hope there’s enough space to submit my reply here. I’ll comment a little on Breivik’s actual insanity or sanity as defined by the current psychiatric instruments, and then answer the perhaps more involved aspect of the political significance of his case in terms of ideology and of Norway/Europe. Hopefully I’ll say something useful, not ramble too much, and it will help to contribute to the debate.

Firstly, you comment on the fact that ‘mythology’ was used by past political figures from the right. Of course, you name two influential thinkers, and there are many more, such as Miguel Serrano and of course Adolf Hitler himself. Mythology plays a big part in nationalism, as well as one of its extreme forms which is fascism of course. Now, just because these are political ideas and we live in an age of free speech which allows space for all of these ideas to be expressed; this doesn’t mean that some who might have these views are not in fact ‘insane’. I’m sure many right wing extremists (and left wingers too) in the past may have been somewhat insane. This doesn’t say anything of the ideas themselves, only certain people. So, who is to say that Breivik’s behaviour doesn’t fit the definition of insane, just because what he did is ‘political’.

Let’s have a look at the psychological literature. What do the two diagnostic manuals, the DSM and ICD-10 say?
Well, DSM defines antisocial personality disorder (which would serve well enough here as a technical definition for ‘insane’) as:
‘…a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.’

Breivik’s actions on Utoeya Island seem to qualify well enough for the above (murder is a fairly strong indicator of disregard), and the trial seems to be showing that he showed symptoms while he was growing up too. The DSM is revised every few years, and they are working on a revision of the disorder above to include an ‘antisocial/psychopathic’ subtype, I don’t know whether this would be more relevant but the above is what we have for now.

The ICD definition is similar, but includes:
‘usually coming to attention because of a gross disparity between behaviour and the prevailing social norms’
Again, his behaviour could arguably be said clearly to demonstrate this.

Now, there are valid criticisms that could be made of these instruments or of the definitions of what constitutes sane or insane here, sure – but for now I’ll go with the instruments that professional psychiatrists and clinicians will have to use in their assessment of Breivik.

Onto the legal and political issues. I guess there’s a lot to say for the argument that this ‘shouldn’t really be about politics, but about psychology and insanity’ – but politics is kind of unavoidable in this case, seeing as the case is asking for a legal judgment of a psychological case, with highly political overtones. I think treating the political issue is relevant given that you treated it too, and so it’s only fair to respond to it.
Firstly, the legal-political concepts of instrumentalism and consequentialism are relevant to the question of punishment here. I’ll say beforehand that I’ll grossly oversimplify things, for the point of brevity – but I hope I’ll say enough to get the point across. Instrumentalism is a ‘utilitarian’ approach, and so possibly can be said to be more in line with Norway and Europe’s (traditionally, until quite recently) liberal, democratic socialist approach. Now, the right wing as represented by Breivik and many of the thinkers and writers you mentioned would more likely take a consequentialist approach, which in a very simplified manner would say that people should ‘get what they deserve’.

So, while I’ll say again that this probably shouldn’t really be about politics; if that’s the argument being made for now then according to these above definitions which one would prove more politically ‘useful’ in this case? I’d say that accepting the consequentialist notion feeds into revenge notions of justice and thereby more primally the right wing would see him as a hero and be more likely to see him as ‘wronged’, with him thereby becoming more of a political martyr. An instrumentalist judgement would deal with the problem of Breivik more clinically while also serving as a more subtle vindication of the European social model.

When you argue that the insanity prosecution is ‘misleading and reductionist’, in the sense of simplifying things maybe you’re right here. However, then the non-reductionist version of the argument might have a chance of leading itself to a ‘narrative’ interpretation, which is again here exactly what Breivik would be trying for in creating a mythology – turning himself into a martyr for his cause. In some of the praise he has given to Islamic fundamentalists in terms of their strategies, he seems to have suggested this practice as a kind of model for the supposed ‘cells’ he wanted to imitate him.

Where I have to say I agree with you, is that it seems there is an apparent danger in that making him seem insane might serve to ‘obscure’ his motivations for action in one sense: that the right wing and extremist activities certainly taking place now across Europe could arguably be hidden or swept under the carpet, in what would maybe seem to outsiders as a kind of ‘denial’. This is a serious problem, of course – and maybe highlights problems with the issue of courts presiding over explicitly political cases. On the other hand, Breivik seemingly thinking that he wasn’t privy to the law because he disrespected the political setup in Norway is a problem that the courts will always have to face, even on a smaller scale. If someone disrespects laws related to paying back debt, for example, because of their own economic philosophies, they can’t just say that to the court after breaking repayment laws. They will still be prosecuted and go to prison. This is I suppose one of the reasons there are politically accepted channels for winning converts to your viewpoint – joining a political party, communicating your ideas, winning elections and supporters. Breivik failed to do this via the route which most of us would find convincing, and he tried to take a more direct and lazy route.

OK, thanks for reading through my reply if you did so, and I hope it was at least interesting! Thanks again for the great piece, I have to get back to work now!

Knut Holt
Jul 18, 2012 18:56

In many ways Braivik is a typical Norwegian with the typical views, principles and attitudes every child learns in Norwegian schools. But he acted out the principles more directly than he was meant to do, and you must be somewhat mad to take certain principles literally.

In addition his acts are probably a revenge for something authorities did to him and to his family early in his childhood.

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