Is Anders Breivik Crazy?

by John Derbyshire

It’s a ticklish question. The strong temptation is to say that anyone who’d do something so outrageously horrible must ipso facto be crazy.

Trouble with that is, most crazy people don’t commit wanton massacres. They gibber, scream, hear voices, eat their own poop, and do all kinds of other stuff, but practically none of them plan and carry out massacres.

You might say that massacring fellow citizens is evidence of a kind of craziness, but what kind? Answer: The has-committed-a-massacre kind. It’s circular: you’re just telling us what he did, then sticking a superfluous word “crazy” on it.

What we really want to know is: Would properly qualified, socially-approved judges of craziness — professional psychiatrists, neurologists, counsellors, and the like — if given a chance to interview Breivik thoroughly a day or two before the murder spree, have come to a consensus that he is dangerously crazy? My rather strong suspicion is that they would not have; but of course we have no real way to know.

Part of my suspicion draws on the case of Charles Whitman, the guy who lugged a small arsenal to the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin 45 years ago next week, then proceeded to kill 16 people and wound 32 others. Whitman actually had seen doctors — at least five, including a university psychiatrist a few weeks before his rampage:

Dr. Jan D. Cochrun prescribed Valium for Charlie and referred him to University Health Center Staff Psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Dean Heatly. Heatly found that Charlie “had something about him that suggested and expressed the all-American boy,” but that he “seemed to be oozing with hostility.” Charlie spoke mainly of his lack of achievement and his hatred of his father. At one point, he told Heatly that he had fantasized about “going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.” Heatly was not disconcerted. Many of his patients had made references to the Tower, and Charlie showed no behavior patterns as of yet that indicated that he was serious. He had, in fact, been making such comments for years, and everyone dismissed them as nonsense. Heatly suggested that Charlie return a week later, and told him that he could call at any time. Charlie did not return, nor did he call.

Unlike Breivik, Whitman seems to have had no ideological agenda. He was just mad as hell at the whole world, for reasons we don’t know. In that Atlantic Magazine link I gave with Whitman’s name, David Eagleman makes much of the brain tumor that was found on autopsy. I happened to discuss Eagleman’s article over lunch a few days ago with friends who know much more neuroscience than I do. (One of them lectures on it.) They told me that the nature and effect of the tumor are much less well understood than Eagleman implies, and that the matter is open.

So I guess the answer to my subject-line question is also open. We don’t understand nearly enough about the springs of human action to come up with an unambiguous diagnosis of “crazy.” That renders the word pretty useless for serious discussion, including even courtroom discussions of culpability.

That leaves only this to be said: That Breivik, and anyone else who does such things, is a fair subject for psychiatric and neurological investigation. We should learn as much as we can from him, with our best techniques of brain imaging and behavior modeling. Our investigations may come up with nothing; or they may give us something less disputable, and more illuminating, than we got from Charles Whitman’s corpse.

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