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Do you have to be mad to become a mass killer?

Interesting piece in Friday’s The Guardian by Simon Baron Cohen (a big name in research on autism) discussing the sanity or otherwise of Anders Breivik who shot and killed 69 people, mainly teenagers, who were at a left-wing summer camp on Utoya island in Norway.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/01/anders-breivik

My comments here are related to next Tuesday’s ‘Ways of Being Mad’ lecture, though I’ll say near the beginning that cases like Breivik’s aren’t the main point of the lecture. For those interested in ‘serial killers’, I guess Breivik isn’t one – ‘mass murderer’, maybe – but do you have to be mad to do such a crazy, appalling, heartless thing?

Baron Cohen reckons not, even though:

…if we could ask the court psychiatrists why Breivik murdered children, they would, according to this week’s reports, say it is because he had paranoid schizophrenia. This diagnosis, if confirmed by independent clinicians, has surprised some people following the case because the 1,518 pages of Breivik’s manifesto do not appear to be the incoherent output of “thought disorder”, but instead read like a rather linear, carefully crafted tome. It is the work of a man with a single vision, a single belief that he wishes to prove to the world in exhaustive detail, and in a logical fashion.

[….] If we had asked Breivik why he murdered all those young people, he would have said it was to draw attention to his manifesto aimed at saving Europe from the Muslims. Indeed he emailed his deeply disturbing “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”, to more than a thousand people 90 minutes before he bombed the government buildings in Oslo and just before he went out and shot all those people on the island camp.

He reckons the issue is in lack of empathy:

….those with antisocial personality disorder (including psychopaths) typically have [….] no trouble reading other people’s thoughts and feelings (intact cognitive empathy) but other people’s suffering is of no concern to them

and he goes on to discuss his ideas about the genetic and experiential origins of this lack of affective empathy, but:

….low affective empathy is not sufficient to explain such cruelty, because there are people with low affective empathy who do not go on to commit such acts.
Low affective empathy is the precondition for cruelty, interacting with other factors. In Breivik’s case, his deeply held (and frightening) ideological convictions may have been one extra ingredient in the deadly mix.

He ends by comparing Breivik with the young Hitler, who started his revolutionary career with an ‘irrational’ act:

At 8.30pm on 8 November 1923, Hitler (then aged 34) burst into the largest beer hall in Munich, fired a shot into the ceiling and jumped on a chair, yelling: “The national revolution has broken out!” Breivik also thought he was starting a revolution. When arrested, Hitler wanted to use the trial to make political speeches, just as Breivik hoped to do.

So, a psychopath, lacking in empathy, driven by racist intolerance (against Jews or Muslims, or whoever you can find) – but was the difference that Hitler was a shrewd political operator, and knew that he needed to save the heartless mass murder for later, while Breivik was a bit thick and unrealistic in thinking that the Norwegian people would rise up behind him? Or maybe Hitler seized the right time – economic collapse and chaos in Germany in the 20s – while Breivik should have waited until next year, for this century’s economic collapse and chaos?

Mmmm.. not sure. I go along with most of Baron Cohen’s analysis, but how dim/obsessed would you need to be to think that killing a load of children (presumably to intimidate their lefty parents and other ‘multiculturalists’) would serve to rally the forces of ethnocentric hatred behind you? There has to be some distortion of reality, surely – but does that count as being mad (or madder than Hitler?).

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