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Anders Breivik: Isolated Mad Man or Tip of the Far-Right Racist Iceburg?

July 28, 2011

Co-authored with Alison Howell, author of Madness in International Relations: Psychology, Security and the Global Governance of Mental Health

The recent events in Norway have revealed the pitfalls of speculation within a 24-hour new cycle/instant social media environment. Almost immediately after information about the bombings and the shootings emerged, facebook, twitter, and media outlets were saturated with possible theories on the source of the violence- with most of the speculation focused on radical Islam and Al-Qaeda (The Atlantic immediately re-posted a great article on Al Qaeda in Norway).

In the ensuing days, a new kind of speculation has become common in reporting on these events: that is, speculation about the psychology of the man who admits to committing these acts (if not his guilt).

Much of this started with Breivik’s own attorney vowing that his client must be insane and that he would only continue to represent him on the condition that he submits to psychological testing. But a number of news outlets, and indeed psychiatrists and psychologists interviewed in the media, have decided not to wait for these kinds of assessments, preferring instead to speculate about Breivik’s psyche based on the very limited information that we now have.

One particularly troubling example of this kind of psychiatric speculation includes a July 25 BBC Europe article, which asserts that “a deep level of mental disturbance” underlies Breivik’s motivations. The article quotes a professor of forensic psychiatry stating: “The bottom line is that we don’t at this moment know enough about his motives to diagnose his mental state. However, while there are all sorts of cross-cutting with right-wing ideology, I believe he is likely to be suffering from a mental disorder.” The article then goes on, to compare Breivik to David Copeland (the 1999 London ‘Nail Bomber’), citing the same professor as saying that “The Norway attack is on the same lines – where extreme right-wing beliefs merge with paranoid psychosis, or delusional disorder….”
The article also quotes a forensic clinical psychologist, who, based on Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ is willing to authoritatively avow that Breivik must have been a ‘shut away,’ ‘insane’ and ‘deluded.’ These kinds of highly speculative pseudo-diagnosis are not confined solely to the BBC report: the Telegraph described Breivik as a “blond psychopath;” another source wonders if Breivik is insane or just evil; and Time magazine has recently published a piece in Breivik entitled “An Interview with a Madman.

Similarly, West Side Republicans– a Republican blog recently sported the headline “NORWAY – Breivik is a politically isolated sociopath. Not A Christian Fundamentalist as the Media & Left would have you believe.” The main conclusion of the post is that “Breivik’s murder spree did not result from classical liberal influences any more than it resulted from Christian influences: It resulted from his own evil and twisted mind.” The blog also takes issue with the way that the New York Times has portrayed Breivik as a Christian extremist, claiming: “The problem is this: There is no “Christian extremist” movement in the way that there is an Islamist or “Islamic extremist” movement. There are bad Christians, to be sure; but they have no modern-day intellectual and political movement that supports and sustains them — modern-day Islamists, or Islamic extremists, do…”

This kind of psychological speculation evident here is highly dangerous, for at least 3 reasons.

1. The idea that he was a solitary monster ignores clear evidence of a wider political community sharing his ideals. We now know that Breivik sent his manifesto out to over 250 individuals just before the bombs in Oslo were detonated, including several far right politicians and the anti-Islamic English Defence League (EDL). It was reported in the Foreigner that “several supporters of the EDL admitted they met Breivik at rallies in Britain and the attacker even confessed he had over 600 EDL members among his Facebook contacts.” Even Breivik’s lawyer has stated that Breivik is part of a wider community of right wing fundamentalists- referencing two additional cells in Norway. Breivik was also a prolific contributor to right wing blogs, and pointed to extreme right wing political parties such as Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party, and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party as sources of inspiration.

It isn’t the thought of Breivik as an isolated monster that is disturbing, rather it is the realization that he has is part of a broad community that share his ideals- if not his tactics. Just Wednesday a member of France’s far-right Front National was suspended for referring to Breivik as an “icon” and a “defender of the West.” Even more disturbing were comments made by a faction of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament: “One hundred per cent of Breivik’s ideas are good, in some cases extremely good. The positions of Breivik reflect the views of those movements across Europe which are winning elections.”

2. This kind of psychological speculation perpetuates the pervasive myth that violence is a characteristic of madness, when in fact people diagnosed with mental disorders are no more likely to commit violent crimes than those who are considered sane. It’s no surprise that the two experts called on in the BBC report mentioned above include a forensic psychologist and a forensic psychiatrist: these are highly problematic disciplines dedicated to tying together crime and madness. It is time, once and for all, to dispel this myth (which is particularly attached to people diagnosed with schizophrenia). Like the term ‘queer,’ the term ‘madness’ is increasingly being reclaimed by organizations such as MindFreedom International and activists in the Mad Pride and psychiatric survivor movements, who are working to claim their rights against often coercive systems of mental health governance. Casting violent acts as evidence of insanity makes it more difficult for such activists to get us to see that madness is just another form of difference (like race, gender or sexuality), and that mental health should be understood in terms of social justice.

3. Psychological speculation renders Breivik’s motivations exceptional and irrational, rather than placing them in the broader context of political debates — especially as they concern multiculturalism in Norway, Europe, or more broadly the West. Regardless of Breivik’s mental state, we should listen to what he lists as his motivations and view his actions primarily as a form of violence motivated by racism. If we pay attention to the way that right wing media outlets are spinning this story it becomes apparent that the underlying anti-immigrant racist ideals of Breivik have traction across the globe. The highlights (or low-lights) of Pat Buchanan’s insights into the attacks in Norway Breivik shows a defiant and impassioned defence of the motivations expressed by Breivik:

“Though Breivik is being called insane, that is the wrong word….Breivik is evil – a cold-blooded, calculating killer – though a deluded man of some intelligence, who in his 1,500-page manifesto reveals a knowledge of the history, culture and politics of Europe. … Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and David Cameron of Britain have all declared multiculturalism a failure. From votes in Switzerland to polls across the continent, Europeans want an end to the wearing of burqas and the building of prayer towers in mosques….awful as this atrocity was, native-born and homegrown terrorism is not the macro-threat to the continent. That threat comes from a burgeoning Muslim presence in a Europe that has never known mass immigration, its failure to assimilate, its growing alienation, and its sometime sympathy for Islamic militants and terrorists.”

People are justified in wondering about the mental state of Breivik- or anyone that could commit such atrocities. However, writing Breivik’ off Breivik’s actions as isolated, irrational and crazy closes out space for talking about the potential iceberg of racists anti-immigration attitudes that his actions sit atop of.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.