On Sanity and Evil

I need to learn more about him, an agonized young Norwegian woman told the CBC reporter interviewing her. “Hopefully, he’s a psychopath.”

The man in question is, of course, Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian believed to have committed one of history’s most horrifying terrorist attacks, and that woman spoke for many of us. We need to learn more. And we hope that what we learn is that he is mad, crazy, insane.

Lots more don’t hope. They know. Only an insane person would do something like that, they think. So Breivik is insane.

But notice that in the torrent of tweets and comments about the atrocity, this common theme is seldom interrogated. What do we mean when we say Breivik is insane?

He’ll surely be subjected to an intense psychological evaluation, and this may well reveal mental disorder, but to date there is little to suggest Breivik is anything but perfectly lucid. His own lawyer says he is aware that what he did is “atrocious” but he felt it was “necessary” to attack a ruling party dedicated to multiculturalism and launch a Christian crusade against the Islamic jihad that supposedly threatens Europe.

Those are the words of a fanatic, not a madman.

I tweeted precisely that comment on Sunday and got a barrage of recrimination in return. One man even accused me of “defending” Breivik.

This got me thinking about how we use the word “insane” and all its more colloquial derivatives.

Most casually, “insane” is merely something that is ridiculous and unsupportable. But in a context like the atrocity in Norway, it becomes infused with moral meaning and it becomes the strongest possible condemnation: “Insane” is the secular equivalent of “evil.”

This is why we call acts “insane,” even though acts are not agents capable of perceiving the world and making choices and so cannot be, by any meaningful definition of the word, “insane.” This is also why people reacted as they did when I suggested Breivik may be sane. They felt I was diminishing the horror of what he had done. And diminishing his responsibility.

And that is truly unfortunate because it gets things exactly backwards.

Responsibility requires choice. The man who robs a store because someone threatens to kill his child if he refuses does not choose to commit the crime. He is not responsible.

And choice requires awareness. The mentally ill man who strangles a woman because he believes she is a python attempting to swallow him is not aware of reality and cannot be said to have chosen to strangle the woman. He certainly is dangerous and he can be incarcerated until such time as he is restored to mental health. But as Western jurists have recognized since the time of Aristotle, he cannot justly be condemned and punished.

So in suggesting that Breivik is sane, I am not diminishing his responsibility. In fact, I am suggesting he fully understood what he did and is therefore fully responsible.

It is those who loudly insist that Breivik is insane who are suggesting there is something disordered about his mind, which may diminish his awareness of what he did, and diminish his responsibility to some degree, even if his particular mental state does not fit the narrow legal definition of insanity.

But there’s still another layer here, I think. It’s hinted at in that Norwegian woman’s use of the word “hopefully.”

People hope that authorities will announce Breivik is a psychopath or otherwise mentally aberrant because the alternative is that he is as sane as you and I. That would mean that a man who is otherwise ordinary committed an atrocity.

The implications are obvious. And disturbing. It’s much more comforting to believe that only monsters are responsible for monstrous acts.

But that is false, as psychology and history can both attest.

“You don’t look at their face, even when you put prods in their mouth,” a Chilean torturer said in 1984. “You keep their eyes covered. The secret is not to look into their eyes. The other secret is not to draw blood. You leave that for the sick bastards or the young brutes. You can watch the body arch and bounce under electricity, but never draw blood.”

In the research on torturers, it is not the “sick bastards” and “young brutes” who turn up most often. It is men like this one – an ordinary man who had to carefully and deliberately overcome his normal human sympathies in order to torment helpless people.

Historians examining the worst crimes of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge found the same pattern. As the title of a famous study put it, most of those responsible for some of the worst crimes in history were “ordinary men.”

Nor is there much mental illness to be found among legendary fanatics like Torquemada, Robespierre, and Lenin. They knew precisely what they did. And they were explicit about the need to overcome basic human compassion to do it.

“Our mission here is difficult and painful,” wrote a French revolutionary officer as he and his men were butchering men, women, and children. To do this work, a man had to renounce “all the affections which nature and gentle habits have made dear to his heart.” His only consolation was “an ardent love of country.”

Heinrich Himmler said something similar to a group of SS officers. “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500, or 1, 000. To have stuck it out and at the same time – apart from exceptions caused by human weakness – to have remained decent men, that has made us hard.” Himmler’s sympathy for his men came from personal experience: Observing a mass execution, he had been sick to his stomach.

It is tempting to think we can identify the deviant few, lock them away, and be rid of horror.

But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” The best we can hope to do is stay on the right side of it.