David Wilson and Craig JacksonBy Professor David Wilson & Professor Craig Jackson

“I am fully aware that the media will attempt to label me as a nut.”
“2083 – A Declaration of European Independence” 
Anders Breivik’s manifesto

What does the media mean when describing an offender as either evil, twisted, insane, deranged, mad, or more popularly (when the offences committed are non-lethal) as a “nutter”? On an intuitive level, the media might say that these labels could apply to a person who planted bombs to kill others, who repeatedly murdered people that he encountered, or who was intent on carrying out his plans, no matter which innocent victims or laws stood in his way.

No doubt this was why Anders Breivek, the Norwegian spree killer and bomber, was recently described by his lawyer as “insane”.  Insane of course, is the legal (and less sensationalist) equivalent of all the synonyms listed above that are used by the media. It is a grown-up summary of the definitive “nutter”. It stands to reason that someone who targeted the Government buildings in Oslo to plant a bomb, who detonated it without any form of warning beforehand, who drove the distance to Utoeya island to kill more than 60 people who were selected for their political beliefs and future-potential is clearly not normal, but are they necessarily insane? Breivik admitted his responsibility for the crimes, but denounced the seriousness of what he did as being necessary in order to save the Scandinavian culture.

Insanity (as a legal defence or a mitigating circumstance) is for psychiatrists and medics to decide – not legal defence teams. Robert Sartin, a young man who committed a spree in Monkseaton on a bank holiday weekend in 1989 with a shotgun, managed to injure 14 people and kill one person. He was arrested and eventually sentenced indefinitely to a secure special hospital. He was labelled by the press and his legal team as insane at the time of the killings, possibly because no underlying cause could be ascertained for what he did. Why did Derrick Bird, Thomas Hamilton, or Michael Ryan, the three perpetrators of the UK’s worst spree killings, not receive the posthumous label of being insane? Perhaps there was no need to describe them as insane because they did not survive, therefore meaning that society did not have “deal” with them. Additionally in the case of all three major UK spree killers, underlying motives were all attributed to Ryan, Hamilton and Bird – something that has never understood with Sartin. Although spree-killers are not the same as serial-killers, (they both have a different type of psychopathology) looking at Dr Fred “Harold” Shipman – the UK’s most prolific serial killer who killed at least 215 of his patients – he was never labelled as insane. This could perhaps be because Shipman never admitted to his killings. If mass killers – either serial murderers or spree murderers survive their crimes and acknowledge that they “did it” it seems that society (not the killers themselves) rush to apply the insanity label – possibly for the sake of society in order to make those crimes palatable.

The Law and Psychiatry are often very hostile bedfellows. The former wants certainty and precision so as to demonstrate responsibility, and the latter is more nuanced and balanced, and weighs up behaviour, thoughts and actions over a long period of time – certainly much longer than the duration of a trial. Naturally, lawyers and psychiatrists are trained in different ways, and have different ways to describe seemingly similar behaviours, events or people.

However, perhaps most people can be agreed that “insanity” involves uncontrollable, impulsive behaviour, and an absence of the influence of reality upon the actions or thoughts of the inflicted individual. This translates into psychosis – the inability to differentiate reality from anything else. Spree killers however are very sane – they plan their actions and they know that what they do is wrong, deliberately targeting younger (innocent) victims as they represent both the ultimate insult to society as well as the easiest victim group. Thomas Hamilton, when embarking on the Dunblane primary school spree took with him ample rounds for his revolver pistols as well as ear defenders and a set of wire cutters. Upon arrival at Dunblane primary school he parked his vehicle and then cut the phone wires on a telegraph pole in the school car park. Unknown to Hamilton, the phone wires he cut were not those of the primary school, and school staff were able to telephone for help – otherwise the number of those injured and killed could have been substantially higher. Insane individuals do not engage in such premeditation – but immoral, self-centred, impulsive and immature individuals do. Breivik’s bomb attack on Oslo and then his killing spree on Utoeya Island were clearly thought-through behaviours, which involved careful and meticulous planning. By psychiatric definition, Breivik is quite clearly sane – even if his views and his behaviour are repulsive and abhorrent. It will no doubt emerge that Breivik is not an Islamophobe who went on a killing spree because of political frustration, but a stymied, thwarted, narcissistic individual who was frustrated with his lack of achievement in life, who believed he deserved to achieve more, who spotted an obvious target group to blame his failings on.

If we are to believe Breivik’s “2083 – A Declaration of European Independence” the attacks took almost nine years to plan. Even if this is an exaggeration – and Breivik’s “Manifesto” is prone to narcissistic flights of fancy – he was organised enough to source his bomb making equipment, dress as a police officer, arm himself, take stimulant drugs, and remember to take his iPod in order to provide himself with a pumping soundtrack to accompany the killings that also drowned-out the victims’ pleas for mercy. Unlike most spree killers, he surrendered to the police at the scene – he did not commit suicide or attempt “suicide by cop” but complied with the armed officers’ demands to put down his arms. Clearly a sane choice – knowing that his impact and infamy will be multiplied if he stays alive. This is not impulsive behaviour, but actions that are quite obviously planned, with one eye kept on the media-portrayals of how the events will look. Nor has Breivik claimed to have heard voices, or seen visions telling him to behave as he has done, but rather his murders are the “product” of a repulsive Islamophobia. At his initial arraignment hearings he no doubt took pleasure in worrying the authorities – and increasing his “power” over them – by stating there were two other terror cells who helped him. Pure narcism, attempting to control events even though he very clearly has no real power.

But what if the Norwegian authorities did decide that he was insane?  Then surely that would absolve him of the guilt of the murders that he carried out, as he would no longer be responsible for his actions?  Labelling Breivik in this way would allow him to portray himself as the victim – driven mad by Islamic immigration while also allowing Norway to ignore the presence of other far right neo-Nazi groups and their followers within the country who peddle views not dissimilar to Breivik’s – indeed he debates the merits of one such man called “Fjordman” in his “Manifesto”.

So let the decision to label Breivik as insane or otherwise be carefully considered – even if the benefits of such a label make it tempting to do so. It must be accepted that the issues at stake are just as likely to involve sociological problems as psychological ones – therefore resulting in the label of “madness” being quite irrelevant.

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David Wilson

David Wilson

Programme Director MA CJPP/ Criminology