The Trial of Anders Behrig Breivik and Insanity


Mass killer Anders Behrig Breivik is fighting in Norwegian court to be considered sane. Originally considered criminally insane, he was later judged to be sane and responsible for his actions.  Admitting to killing 77 people in a bombing and youth camp massacre, he said that no one would have asked for a psychiatric examination if he had been a "bearded jihadist". Two psychiatric examinations have reached different conclusions about his mental state.

The Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine has asked for additional information from the two psychiatrists who found him sane. Jon Hestnes, who heads a support group for victim's families and survivors, was quoted as saying, "He's not in our world".

How is sanity to be judged? The killings were certainly horrific; Breivik's lack of remorse or any signs of repentance are beyond normal comprehension. He seems inhuman, totally divorced from our reality. Indeed, the four psychiatrists are sitting in the court to get more evidence about his legal responsibility.

His belief that he is right and rational reminds me of a passage in Irving Yalom's  The Spinoza Problem where he has Spinoza saying, "I shall follow no power on earth other than my own conscience". Indeed, Erik Erikson's famous psychobiography of Martin Luther, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History opened an entire field by describing the identity crisis leading to the nailing of the 95 theses and the "Here I Stand" declaration where Luther proclaimed that his loyalty was to his conscience and not to the Catholic Church.

Was Luther sane? At the time of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church certainly considered him a heretic. Insane? The term was not in use at the time, but Luther was certainly outside the norms of society.

I am not comparing Breivik with Spinoza or Luther. Not at all. Breivik is a cold blooded killer. Spinoza and Luther had religious beliefs radically different from the accepted norms of the time. But, their beliefs did not lead them to violent action. Luther and Spinoza were not killers.

The question I am raising is how a society decides if someone is sane or not. Breivik claims he was following his own beliefs which became a political ideology based on protecting Norway as a militant nationalist. He has his own logic. He said at the trial, according to the Associated Press, "To a political activist, the worst thing that can happen is you end up in a mental hospital. That would delegitimize everything you stand for".

But, first of all, he is a killer, a criminal, and he should be punished. However, he claims he killed people for his beliefs/ideology. Does his particular ideology make him sane or insane? Is he using political statements as excuses for killing? The court must decide if he was criminally insane when he committed his crimes, which will call for a different punishment than if he is judged to be sane. For the moment, the experts are divided. It will be fascinating to see how the court decides on his sanity after two contradictory expert attempts and his public testimony.


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