This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who last summer slaughtered 77 people in cold blood, many of them children, was convicted last Thursday and sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum penalty according to Norwegian law. The verdict also allows for Norwegian authorities to keep Breivik in something called "protective custody" for as long as he remains a threat to society, which one assumes will be the rest of his life.
The press accounts of his trial make for interesting reading. Breivik was pleased with the verdict -- he had not wanted to be found "insane" by the court. Such a verdict would have, in his view, invalidated his political crusade against Islam, which he claims lay at the root of his killing spree, the worst in Norway's history.
What I found interesting was that no one seemed to be discussing the possibility that Breivik is a psychopath. Prosecutors brought forth a psychologist who presented the court with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The court dismissed this notion out of hand, saying that Breivik's ideas about being at war with Islam were not delusional, but simply "a fanatic and right-wing extremist view of the world."
Breivik's defense attorneys, meanwhile, argued that their client was "narcissistic" and "dissocial" -- clinical terms that fall well within the range of conduct disorders, but fall short of the very specific diagnosis of psychopathic. Robert Hare, in his landmark work on Psychopathy, called "Without Conscience," writes that "Psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. Their acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilling inability to treat others as thinking, feeling human beings. Such morally incomprehensible behavior, exhibited by a seemingly normal person, leaves us feeling bewildered and helpless."
Hare is the world's foremost authority on psychopathy and has spent decades working with these predators, inside prison and out. He also developed what's called the "psychopathy checklist," which is used by mental health practitioners in prisons and hospitals around the world to determine where people like Breivik fit in.
Our societies are filled with psychopaths, Hare says. They come in all forms -- politicians, business people, law enforcement officers, artists, doctors and lawyers. There are probably 2 million or so psychopaths in North America, Hare believes. Their qualities? Glibness, a lack of conscience, calculating minds, a lack of empathy, selfishness and an extreme tendency to see other people as objects to be used, squashed, manipulated and destroyed. The most violent among this group of people sometimes go on to become serial murderers. Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, also known as the "Night Stalker," and John Gacy are among some of the more well-known of them. In his book, "Columbine," Dave Cullen presents a compelling case that Eric Harris, the older of the two high school killers, was a text book psychopath who manipulated the depressive and pliable Dylan Klebold into going along with his murderous plans.
Breivik, it seems to me, fits into this category of psychopathic killers. The similarities to Columbine's Harris, for instance, are intriguing. Harris, like Breivik, also authored a rambling "manifesto" in which all manner of people came in for criticism. Harris justified his psychopathic desire -- some might say need -- to kill by inventing and concocting an entire worldview in which innocent people were turned into victimizers, haters, unworthy of anything good -- people who deserved death and nothing more. Breivik's mental gymnastics led to the same conclusions. The young children at summer camp were guilty simply by their association with a political worldview Breivik managed to elevate to epic heights, and in which he vested more power than any political movement in a democratic country could ever possibly contain. These children, then, needed to be eliminated. One chilling detail from the press accounts revealed that Breivik often stood face-to-face with his terrified victims, looking them in the face as he reloaded his weapons and then set about killing them. What could possibly be more psychopathic than that?
I agree with the court's ruling that Breivik was sane -- the psychiatrists and other experts who specialize in psychopathy routinely point out that these people are not insane the way we typically think of insane -- hearing voices, seeing things that aren't there, having delusional thought patterns about worlds that don't exist and so forth. No, psychopaths simply don't act like other human beings because, in a very real sense, they lack the very qualities that make one human -- empathy, a capacity to love, a need to understand other human beings, a desire and an ability to connect to the world.
As his verdict was read, Breivik announced he had an apology to make. A plea to the victim's families, perhaps? No, nothing of the kind. Breivik stood up and announced he was sorry -- sorry he had not been able to kill more people. His apology, he said, was directed at the vast network of militant nationalists who support his cause. This was probably a lie. In all likelihood, this plea was directed at the only people who could really and truly understand, or possibly replicate, what Breivik did -- other psychopaths.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.