Anders Breivik’s disgusting sanity

April 20, 2012

To watch Anders Breivik, in the news clips available of him in the Oslo court where he is being tried for mass murder, is to see a smile on the face of an animal much more terrifying than any beast: a human fanatic, whose own mental processes have produced a monstrous creature. That smile is so normal, appearing so naturally in his conversations with his defense lawyer Geir Lippestad. It seems almost…carefree. Indeed, Breivik does seem free from care. “I would say,” said Lippestad on Wednesday, in the precise and fluent English all Norwegians seem able to speak, that “he’s always in a good mood.”

Lippestad, who will likely never have another such shot at fame, will probably never again walk such a high wire. He must defend a man most of the world believes to be wholly indefensible and many in Norway know as one who murdered a relative, friend or acquaintance. He must accompany his client as he comes to court and gives his defiant, fist-out salute. Breivik has been asked to stop, but so far hasn’t. Lippestad is helpless in this matter, saying that “either he will or he won’t. There’s nothing that we can order him to do.” The Norwegian authorities are grimly determined that all the rules of a liberal order be followed: Lippestad, in a liberal society’s iconic (but hardly popular) role of the defender of a human horror, bears the brunt.

And he must argue, under instructions from his client, that he is sane. If he’s sane, he can get 21 years – the maximum sentence – and then, after he serves the sentence, there will be an argument (which Breivik may win) that he can be freed if he is judged no longer to be a danger to society. A judgment that he is insane could keep him in a secure medical facility for life, if that custody is constantly reimposed on three-year reviews. He has said: Give me liberty or give me death. He says the maximum sentence would be “absurd.” Norway has no death penalty: It is not about to invent one for him, even if many Norwegians would wish it (including one of the lay judges on the panel hearing the casecasec, who had to resign when he made this clear).

Breivik is instructing Lippestad to argue for his sanity because he wants the world to know that he acted consciously, logically, sanely – even, as he memorably argued earlier this week, out of “goodness” and “necessity” (the word was initially translated as “self-defense” but has since been corrected). “Necessity” in the sense Breivik wishes to convey is the needful protection of Norwegian – and European – society from Islam, from the ideology of multiculturalism that foists Islam on Christian societies, and from the agents of multiculturalism – in this case, the ruling Norwegian Labor Party, 69 of whose youth league members he killed on the island of Utøya on July 22, 2011. He would, he said, “do it again,” a claim that he must have seen as elevating his squalid massacre to the status of an opening battle in a long war over the forces that are destroying Europe.

Crazy, isn’t it? Even those who believe that immigration has been too high; who believe that Islamic extremism presents a constant and perhaps growing danger to the world, Europe included; who blame successive governments for policies that have too rapidly changed once largely mono-ethnic states into multicultural nations; who have whipped such feelings into a passion that leads them to join or to vote for parties of the far right – even they must feel that this is a diseased mind.

There is a dilemma here. Democratic societies must live with bad ideologies, including those that claim Europe must be purged of all alien races, as well as those that call for its total Islamization. That can be deeply uncomfortable, and courts dangers: Ideologies can be proclaimed with no more violence than their own inflamed rhetoric until, one day, some one or some group decides to convert the words to deeds. But we have to live in and with the messy compromises that such extremism dictates for elected governments.

We should not inflate debate about immigration and multiculturalism by democratic politicians and citizens into a claim that a new racist discourse is taking a grip on Europe. That is what Mariano Aguirre of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre did in Le Monde Diplomatique earlier this week, arguing that both Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK had contributed to the rise of the far right by declaring multiculturalism “dead.” But, in fact, both Merkel and Cameron were arguing for a more integrated society in which different ethnic and faith groups didn’t feel impelled or encouraged to emphasize their separateness. They were arguing for their fuller citizenship, not their marginalization.

We can’t solve the dilemma by concluding that Breivik is mad. In this, at least, we should take his word for it. For if he is judged mad, most of the ground we have previously occupied in making moral and judicial decisions is cut away.

Those we have judged to be the chief monsters of the 20th century – Hitler, Mao, Stalin – we have generally assumed to be sane. We certainly assumed Hitler’s senior lieutenants to be sane when they were judged, and in many cases executed, at Nuremberg. Leaders of the West dealt with, indeed at different times wooed, both Stalin and Mao, and treated them as legitimate leaders of their people.

Yet were they not mad, by the same token used by those who judge Breivik to be mad? To conclude that the survival of Germany required the mass murder of as many Jews as could be obtained; to provoke and preside over a civil war (the “Cultural Revolution”) to bolster one’s position and continue the “people’s revolution”; to starve millions in the course of eradicating “rich” peasants and imprison millions in Siberian camps for a careless complaint or joke about the regime, a recalcitrant attitude to work, a friendship with or a family connection to one already judged an “enemy of the people” – all in the service of creating a workers’ and peasants’ state of advanced socialism: Are these not the actions of maniacs?

And is it not mad to declare war on the “Jews and Crusaders” – that is, the Western world –  to usher in an era of harmony under the tutelage of a single, extreme interpretation of the Koran? How, then, can we judge those who have dedicated, or would dedicate, their life to this as adults responsible for their decisions?

But we have, we do and we are right to do so. Sanity comprehends the imagining, the propagation, the planning and the execution of extraordinary violence, lasting years and slaughtering millions. It includes creating machines of murder that go about their work without their progenitor being present, or even knowing how they work. It includes energetic efforts to spread murderous theories beyond the borders of the state. Sane people have done terrible things: It was their sanity, their ability to plan and to enthuse others, that made them so terrible.

And sanity includes Anders Breivik. It may be – as the prosecution is attempting to show – that he lives in a fantasy world where networks of Knights Templars giving closed-fist salutes plan other such atrocities as his to save Europe from an Islamic fate. It is certainly the case that he acted on the prompting of a belief that he was and remains a patriotic, Christian militant, able to see with clearer eyes than the apathetic majority what is happening to them.

He, who is in most eyes the embodiment of evil, is in his own mind undertaking the lesser evil: the delivery of a shock to his and other societies through slaughter to focus their attention on the much larger slaughter to come, and hence avert it. That’s hideous, and we should fear that he might inspire others like him. But he knew what he was about. It’s not mad.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Heiko Junge/Scanpix/Pool; REUTERS/Erlend Aas/ Scanpix/Pool


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I’m not sure I agree with you that he is not out of his mind crazy. Just because you think you understand your reasons and are methodical in how you kill does not make one sane and just evil.

Just because he has the belief that is shared by others that there is a secret war and an invasion of Islam into the EU does not mean that he is sane when he kills people in the name of the defense of himself and his country. Just because there are others who share his view does not make him correct nor sane. Unless you truly wholeheartedly believe in his rhetoric I don’t see how you could say that he was sane.

Just because there are other people who share your beliefs does not make the whole group sane. If he had instead said that he was killing in the name of saving people from the devil and that their early demise would ensure they wouldn’t stray from the path of God, the fact that others believe the same things would not be enough justification to say he was sane in committing murder.

Unlike WWII his country is not at war, he is not a soldier, no one gave him orders to commit attrocities and just because some people believe Hitler was sane doesn’t necessary make him so. I think that any sane person could not relish the deaths of the innocent people he did not know nor shed tears of passion in viewing their own work. Have you ever cried in pride after reading your own work? Not if you have your wits about you…

Posted by Mikesays | Report as abusive

Personally I’m looking forward to him being killed by one of his fellow inmates much as Jeffrey Dahmer met his fate in the US.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

You’d have to be crazy to try to define sanity. Here goes, then…

A completely sane person, regarding people, believes that:
1. You cannot live with them; and
2. You cannot shoot them.

A delusional humanitarian, regarding people, believes that:
1. You can live with them; and
2. You cannot shoot them.

A delusional misanthrope, regarding people, believes that:
1. You cannot live with them; and
2. You can shoot them.

A completely insane person, regarding people, believes that:
1. You can live with them; and
2. You can shoot them.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Each of the people you talk about, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and now Breivik, regardless of their sanity or insanity, shares a single characteristic. They are enormously dangerous to the rest of us. Each would (and in some cases did) slaughter millions to achieve what they wanted. Their view was always that somehow this was the lesser of the evils. Stalin and Mao made serious attempts to eliminate their own populations. One feels that Breivik would do the same; ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’. Humans have always had these tumors in our societies. We should recognize the fact and excise them rather than debating their philosophies or trying to apply psychological labels to them. Each time we fail to do this because we can’t quite bring ourselves to deal with reality, hundreds and thousands and sometimes millions die. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

When the “Great Monsters of History” lived seems to have a great deal to do with what one can calls “sanity.” That is not a comforting thought.

If Breivik was still living in the days when “they could pillage a village and kill everyone – I still love Atilla the Hun”, (Dick Van Dyke show) he’d have been seen as one of “the boys”, a stout heroic youth, a good “moral” Viking and a tribute to his clan.

I saw a movie once years ago where Mao was supposed to have greeted Nixon, the first time they met, with “So now you are as evil as I am”? That’s not a comforting thought either.

I also draw scant comfort from assurances that right-minded people don’t think like Breivik. I think Breivik is a confession on the part of genetic instinct (for lack of a better word). All of humanity (as has been said of aristocrats) lives on the accomplishments of its less “enlightened” ancestors. There were ugly sounds of racial and or cultural chauvinism in anti-muslim/arabic rhetoric that preceded the two wars. I didn’t care what they thought about the western forces and didn’t hear much about that. The Arab world’s gripes were more moral and political.

I think that almost any crime can be packaged to fool our moral immune defense systems, so to speak. Hunger, pain and privation make the world look very different if you are feeling them. Moral imperatives look fey when they face real and pressing needs.

But maybe we’re improving: the two wars haven’t produced a slang term quite as “disgusting” as Gook!

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

First, on evil: Mao was right about Nixon, who was a genuine monster.

Second, why is thinking that immigration is bad policy evil in itself?

Third, is there a significant difference, really, between ethnic groups that take action to preserve themselves? It is great for Jews but evil in Vikings?

Fourth, is there any legitimate motive other than cultural and political dominance to systematically kill people by the tens, hundreds, thousands, millions? Is not the rest simply rationalization?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

I don’t believe the issue of whether or not he is insane makes much difference. What is best for Norway? That’s the question. Whichever option keeps him off the streets for the rest of his life is the one to take, and is he is judged sane, 21 years from now he could be stalking kids again with a rifle. I like the insane asylum option – no way those review boards will ever let him out (but that’s certainly a risk).

Posted by justine184 | Report as abusive

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

Posted by AnyOldFool | Report as abusive

Stimulating article. Thank you!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Yes, he is sane.

He believes that allowing immigrants to enter his country without embracing its values requires direct action. His direct action killed many innocents but can you name a “just” war in the last one hundred years that didn’t do exactly that? If you disagree with my comment about direct action, I’ll answer with three words: Dresden, Hiroshima, London. There are many more examples I (and you) could name, those came first to my mind.

Do I approve of what he did? No. But we must, as nations, begin to think through what it is that we value as citizens of our nations and take action to preserve those values. Do we shoot Muslims simply because they are Muslims? No. But should we sacrifice our beloved national cultures in the name of some abstract concept of equality? Absolutely no!

Posted by HalinOK | Report as abusive

the nuremberg trials only hung 10 nazis (of a convicted 12).

hard-core nazis like krupp von bohlen, architect of the use of slave labor and one of the chimney barons who started german re-militarization as early as 1921, staid less than 5 years in prison, being freed (and receiveing his 500 million US$ back) to help fight communism during the korean war.

thanks Ike! duhhhh, who’s crazy?

Posted by tonygil | Report as abusive

That his maximum sentence could be a mere 21 years is dumbfounding. I have evolved in my views to oppose the death penalty, but surely such a crime deserves a life of imprisonment with no chance of release? Anything less in incomprehensible. Keeping him locked up for as long as he lives achieves the goal of protecting the public and providing a punishment for an inexcusable crime.

What purpose is achieved by releasing him after 21 years?

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive