Anders Breivik: sane or insane?


Talk soon turns to a discussion of the probable state of mind of a murderer whenever the crime is extreme in form or size. It was inevitable that the tragic mass slaughter of Norwegian youth would be no exception. Within a week, before we know much at all about the young man, debate had started. ‘He has to be mad or insane to perpetrate such a heinous act’ was likely to be the initial stance – and the evidence seems obvious. To be quickly followed by a seemingly wiser observation. ‘The man had to be sane – think of the months of detailed preparation Breivik undertook to become perfectly prepared to execute his plan – that can only the work of a sane person’.

As material grows over coming months, with written extracts from his voluminous ‘manifesto’, and verbal assertions and defences from his court appearances, people around the world will consolidate their position, or make a dramatic conversion from one to another camp. And whichever position one is in, everyone will be armed with more and more ‘conclusive’ evidence that the man was sane, or insane, as the case may be. Dictionaries are likely to be consulted to buttress a case; experts in the area will be seized upon or ignored

according to their supportive usefulness. Nothing is likely to be settled before public interest in the issue will begin to fail or until it is usurped by another horrendous, violent tragedy.

Some people will eventually question the debate. They will begin to challenge the framing of the issue and the silent assumptions behind the two opinions. ‘Perhaps an otherwise ‘sane’ person can carry some ‘insane’ qualities as well? Perhaps we should not assume mental states or qualities as ‘pure’ entities (like billiard balls for example) – here, of something labelled ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ which by definition are mutually exclusive, any co-existence being inconceivable, inexpressible’. Perhaps we have been tricked by our language: we have two opposing words which make us think they represent two opposing ‘realities’. But are there two things? Could we be composed of different complex mixtures; after all, many writers stress the complexity, disharmony, inconsistency, contrariness of any human psyche – such as the observation of Peter Steele when he says: “Show me a person and I will show you a labyrinth”. And if so, why only two names/ two words? Why do we so easily talk as if everything comes in two’s? And then we could change the imagery of concrete billiard balls bouncing off each other to something more like varieties of clouds moving in and out and between each other. We may need to enrich our vocabulary; to search for different complexities and avoid the temptation to simplify everything. Why do we always descend into crude pairs of opposing things, about which we assume we must make a clean choice: is it right or wrong, yes or no, black or white, good or bad, with us or against us?’

Why do we feel obliged to make judgments? To defend a position and attack another? Why do we get satisfaction from reaching a conclusion, better still, of winning some battle. Are we capable of appreciating another default game – of leaving open-ended an exploration of human behaviour about which we are happy to admit we know and will continue to know little, and that an exhibition of certainty is not a sign of strength but a weakness. And to agree that the discussion was enjoyable and valuable to all parties.

NOTE to readers. You may be interested to read my blog titled  “Going Sane” on the website, and also an article on ‘lessons’ from the Norwegian massacre in the current, July, issue on MCI enewsletter.

Don Miller, 28 July 2011