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Evil and Insanity Are Not the Same Thing

Norway mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik has been ruled insane. This means he can’t be sentenced to prison but can be confined to a mental hospital for the rest of his life. I don’t know much about Norway’s legal system, but I do know that the maximum penalty anyone can receive — even if you kill 77 people in a horrific day of bombing and shooting — is 21 years. So perhaps this ruling is just a way to confine someone who otherwise would be free to kill and terrorise again by the time…

  1. Bjarni Olafsson

    I think you are not far from the mark in that the insanity decision may be a way to lock him up for life. The Norwegian and Icelandic legal systems are very similar, but at least we have the option of a life sentence. As far as I know they do not, but an insane criminal can in theory be locked up indefinitely. Though you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he might be “cured” in 10-20 years.

  2. Kelly B

    It has seemed to me for some time that the word “evil” has become almost verboten – at least, using it in a serious way.  If mankind doesn’t acknowledge the existence of evil, how on earth are we to fight against it?  We cannot continue to exist as naive, trusting children, expecting that talking things out will solve all human ills – that was one of the things that disturbed me most about Obama’s initial approach to foreign policy, although he does seem to have got over it since the first months of his presidency.

  3. Leslie Watkins

    People who love everyone love no one very much.

  4. Fastflyer

    Evil must be opposed. Evil must be eradicated. Like weeds sprouting it is a never ending battle.

  5. J. D. Fitzpatrick

    A society so good, so noble, so pure, that it has no way to ensure that this man never kills again …

  6. Lucy Pevensie

     I haven’t read the man’s manifesto, but I have a question–not a rhetorical one, but a real one.  Doesn’t the idea that a killing spree like this would work as a marketing ploy and attract followers demonstrate a lack of reality testing?  I mean I get that the level of disordered thinking here is less immediately obvious than the level of disordered thinking displayed by Gifford’s attacker, but isn’t it also delusional and therefore by definition insane? 

    I once knew a lovely biploar man who was convinced that he was Superman.  OK, so that’s obviously absurd on the face of it.  But he could tell you in very coherent detail all about how he knew he was Superman, why he needed to go out and save people, why you should wear blue because it was a lucky color because it was Superman’s color, etc.

    In other words, are you confusing a specific manifestation of insanity–incoherence–which this guy does not display, with insanity itself? 

  7. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    Lucy Pevensie:  I haven’t read the man’s manifesto, but I have a question–not a rhetorical one, but a real one.  Doesn’t the idea that a killing spree like this would work as a marketing ploy and attract followers demonstrate a lack of reality testing?  I mean I get that the level of disordered thinking here is less immediately obvious than the level of disordered thinking displayed by Gifford’s attacker, but isn’t it also delusional and therefore by definition insane? 

     Nov 29 at 8:45am

    Lucy,

    I’d have to know more about the particulars. I mean, thinking that this would attract followers is not necessarily delusional. Failing to accept that it hasn’t would be another thing.

    Plenty of people are drawn to power and violence and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that his actions could have drawn a following. I’m also open to the idea that it’s proof of his delusions that he thought this a realistic possibility. It all depends on the details.

  8. Tommy De Seno
    C

    In America to be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial the only consideration is whether you can assist in your own defense.   Not sure how the Norwegians do it, but I like our system.   It is specific to the task at hand only – the trial – and neutral as to all other considerations.   In other words, you can be crazier than a loon but still stand trial here if you are competent enough to know what the trial is about and assist your lawyer in defending against the charge.

    The American standard makes sense because you wouldn’t want a person who can’t defend himself in a trial.  It would be like putting a boxer in a ring with handcuffs on behind his back.  You wouldn’t really be able to know who the better boxer was.

    It would seem to me from his written materials that this fellow can assist in his own defense, but I haven’t seen the psych evaluations so I wouldn’t want to say for sure.

  9. Nyadnar17

    Liberals have a hard time with “rational” evil. They understand selfishness and they get greed, but rational, well thought out, non-self serving evil is very difficult for liberals to wrap their brains around.

  10. Misthiocracy

    I’m somewhat of a fan of “indefinite” sentences as an alternative to “life” sentences.

    If an offender is CLEARLY a threat to public security, but there’s any question regarding that person’s “moral culpability”, then why not label them a “dangerous offender” and keep ‘em locked up. 

    That way, it’s not punishment. It’s a precaution.

    I can understand a society’s aversion to life sentences, but capping all sentences at 21 years just seems crazy to me.

  11. Wylee Coyote

    How do you say, “Hard cases make bad law” in Norwegian?

  12. Basil Fawlty
    Tommy De Seno: In America to be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial the only consideration is whether you can assist in your own defense.   Not sure how the Norwegians do it, but I like our system.   It is specific to the task at hand only – the trial – and neutral as to all other considerations.   In other words, you can be crazier than a loon but still stand trial here if you are competent enough to know what the trial is about and assist your lawyer in defending against the charge.

    The American standard makes sense because you wouldn’t want a person who can’t defend himself in a trial.  It would be like putting a boxer in a ring with handcuffs on behind his back.  You wouldn’t really be able to know who the better boxer was.

    It would seem to me from his written materials that this fellow can assist in his own defense, but I haven’t seen the psych evaluations so I wouldn’t want to say for sure. · Nov 29 at 9:14am

    I’m confused.  I though he’d been ruled insane, not just mentally incompetent to stand trial.

  13. TheRoyalFamily
    Lucy Pevensie: Doesn’t the idea that a killing spree like this would work as a marketing ploy and attract followers demonstrate a lack of reality testing?  I mean I get that the level of disordered thinking here is less immediately obvious than the level of disordered thinking displayed by Gifford’s attacker, but isn’t it also delusional and therefore by definition insane?

    My thought is he was probably on the internet a lot before he did this, and conversed with lots of angry people that thought the same way he did. In his mind, the only reason no one would do anything about it was because they were cowed and frightened, and just needed someone to do something major, and everyone would rise up. The delusion here is believing that very angry internet people would equate, in any measurable part, with very angry people in real life, willing to act out that anger. Foolish, but not insane; it’s a relatively easy mistake to make (warning: not CoC-compliant). But that’s just a thought.

    I also wouldn’t automatically say “delusional” is some form of insanity. Would we not say all the socialist utopians are severely delusional? 

  14. Mole-eye

    I don’t know anything about Norwegian criminal law, but I make my living by trying to keep crazy and dangerous people locked up in mental hospitals here in the US.  Sounds to me like Breivik was found ”not guilty by reason of insanity”, a better statement of which is “guilty but insane.”  In our system that means that the defendant has a mental disorder that makes him either incapable of understanding the wrongfulness of the conduct, or incapable of conforming his conduct to the legal standard (i.e., not killing people.)

    In California an NGI defendant can be kept locked up in the hospital for a period of time equal to the max term of his sentence, but if he’s still crazy and dangerous at the end of that time, his commitment can be legally extended.  If he recovers his sanity he can petition for a restoration of sanity, and if that is granted he is returned to the criminal court to deal with the criminal charges.  I suspect the Norwegian system is something like that, and that Breivik qualified as insane because he didn’t grasp that killing people as an attention-getter is absolutely wrong/unjustifiable.

  15. Lucy Pevensie
    TheRoyalFamily

    My thought is he was probably on the internet a lot before he did this, and conversed with lots of angry people that thought the same way he did. In his mind, the only reason no one would do anything about it was because they were cowed and frightened, and just needed someone to do something major, and everyone would rise up. . . .  

    I also wouldn’t automatically say “delusional” is some form of insanity. Would we not say all the socialist utopians are severely delusional?  ·

    I really think we are using the word delusional as a figure of speech when we say socialist utopians are delusional.  It is different from a clinical delusion, which is a fixed, contrary to fact, incorrect inference about reality; utopians just have high and unrealistic hopes.

    Delusions need not even be bizarre to be delusions. To me the idea that by killing a bunch of random strangers you will somehow spark a large political movement is in fact a bizarre delusion, of the kind that you might find in a paranoid schizophrenic, which is a relatively high functioning subtype of schizophrenia. 

    Of course, I am not a psychiatrist, just an interested observer.

  16. Mole-eye

    I agree that Breivik’s crimes spring from something more than just mental illness.  It looks like Breivik has some sort of psychotic disorder that gives him grandiose delusions, but the vast majority of people with psychotic disorders never break the law, and even among the small number who do, killing is rare, and among that small number of psychotic murderers this sort of mass slaughter is very, very rare. Call it sociopathy or evil, it’s what makes hands-on mass-murderers like Breivik, as well as mass-murder from a distance, like Stalin,and Hitler. 

  17. Raw Prawn

    Breivik’s actions prove he is evil.  The actions of the Norwegian government prove they are insane.  It was the Norwegian Labor Party government that taught Breivik the lesson that terror works.  By ruling Breivik insane they are shutting down the issue.

    After an islamic terrorist atrocity “moderate” islamic leaders step up and deplore the violence; but explain that poor oppressed islamic youths were reacting to a lack of respect for their faith and their culture, then demand concessions in the name of tolerance and get some.  The governments, including the Norwegian government, that make accommodations are guaranteeing there will be more atrocities. 

    Breivik is like an ‘underpants gnome’ only instead of forgetting what stage two of the plan is he jumped straight to stage two, seemingly believing the exploitation of the outrage would happen by magic.

  18. Aodhan

    As a psychologist with a PhD from Yale (I know: that hotbed of conservatism), I can’t see anything particularly insane about Breivik.

    He decided it was rational and justified to kill innocents to prevent what he regarded as greater evil, namely, the malign encroachment of Islamic culture. He had also hoped, by his remarkable act, to incite a sympathetic rebellion.

    In both cases, he was not only terribly wrong, but also culpably wrong.

    He had no right to kill innocents. He could have weighed their value higher. But he chose not to, preferring to pursue the glory of acting on his warped ideals.

    He was rash to conclude that his heinous act would inspire. Rather, it disgusted. But he chose not to think hard about it, as doing so would have threatened his self-serving perceptions of significance.

    So Breivik was definitely wrong. He’s also definitely odd. But how does that differentiate him from other criminals, except in terms of magnitude of crime, or singleness of purpose?

    He is fully capable of rational means-ends thinking. He just isn’t either humble or sympathetic. So, he is depraved, not insane.

    Regardless, Norway, just keep him permanently indoors, okay?

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