The 22 July Verdict Approaches: Norway’s Judicial System and the Question of Breivik’s Legal Sanity

by Reidar Visser

Apart from the atrocities of 22 July themselves, the most disturbing aspect of Norway’s terror attacks last year was the subsequent attempt by so-called psychiatric experts to declare the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik legally insane. Of course, the question of insanity must ultimately be decided by professionals, but even laymen can say something about the arguments that have been used to support the diagnosis of insanity so far: They are not impressive.

In fact, many of the arguments used to support the diagnosis of Breivik as a paranoid schizophrenic can be dismissed simply with a little common sense and some political science of the most basic kind.

First, there is the political aspect. Breivik propagates a grand conspiracy theory about how Western governments supposedly collaborate with Muslims in a secret plot to Islamize Europe. This thesis is easy to refute empirically (basically, there is no empirical evidence of specific links between Islamist politicians and Western governments supporting them in this way), but it does not mean large number of right-wing politicians in Europe don’t believe in it. There are tens and thousands of them and they are not all legally insane. For example, with respect to Breivik’s commentary on the Middle East it is possible to conclude he is off the mark but probably not more off the mark than an average US politician.

Second, there is a wide array of supposed “symptoms” quoted by psychiatrists in defence of their insanity diagnosis (a good tabulation with some quotations in Norwegian is given by Aftenposten here; the reports themselves are here).

1. Breivik moved home to live with his mother in Oslo’s West End for a period.  Right. The psychiatrists would be surprised to learn how many Norwegian twenty-somethings do exactly the same in order to save money. In the expensive Oslo rental market, in particular, this is not an altogether uncommon survival strategy.

2. Breivik wore a face mask when his mother was ill. “Paranoia!” scream the psychiatrists. Do they know how common this practice is in Asia, even outside the flu season? Face masks are a perfectly rational response to elevated risk of disease transmission, such as when a family member is sick. Many doctors say it is more effective than ritualistic hand washing. Hell, even members of the sacrosanct Norwegian national cross-country ski team have confessed to reducing their social activity during flu season if they are preparing for a competition. Breivik’s face mask has to do with the diffusion of reasonable ideas about health from Asia to Europe following years with SARS and swine flu scares; it has nothing to do with insanity.

3. Breivik “does not stay on topic” during interviews. Did anyone watch the press conference of the Norwegian minister of justice after the director of police was recently forced out due to revelations about gross police failure in the 22 July independent commission report?

4. Breivik was overcautious with respect to plainclothes police. Perfectly rational behaviour if you are planning mass murder.

5. Perhaps the most tragicomic piece of “evidence” presented by the psychiatrists is Breivik’s language. “He overuses creative compounds”, say the psychiatrists. Neologisms!  OK, so that can signify meaningless words coined by a psychotic. But hold your horses. In Norwegian, new compound words appear all the time, sometimes with only tenuous relationship to empirical realities. A decade or so ago, an ad campaign for a margarine spread highlighted its “spreadability” by using the Norwegian word smørevillig – literally “willing to be spread”, as if the fat could think and act. Academics invent new words all the time. Some survive, others disappear again. Does coining a term like ethno-federalism in the context of federalism in ethnically divided societies make one legally insane?

To be fair, a second team of psychiatrists came up with what seemed a far more reasonable assessment: Breivik is a narcissist. This is perhaps not the most fortunate diagnosis on the planet, but clinically proven narcissists are still fit to stand trial and receive punishment according to standard criminal procedure in Norway.  Sadly, though, in the name of “the benefit of the doubt”, prosecutors in the Breivik case opted to hang on to the arguments of the first pair of psychiatrists as basis for doubting his legal sanity.

Interestingly, both the accused and families of the victims alike seem to disapprove of the idea of Breivik being declared insane. It would certainly look bad if Norway adopted the Israeli approach of almost invariably declaring terrorists from the majority population as “insane”, reserving reserve the term “terrorists” for ethnic minorities.

The only thing proven by the contribution of the lead psychiatrists in the Breivik case so is their own insularity, narrow-mindedness and ignorance of wider trends in European politics and society. This in itself is perhaps not sufficiently shocking to merit a diagnosis for them, but a gentle suggestion to these “experts” about taking some time off from work and travel outside Norway might be worthwhile. As for the wider institutional implications, together with other worrying aspects of Norwegian law enforcement practices such as the exaggerated use of pre-trial detention and other extra-judicial punishment such as police stalking, the ease with which psychiatrists have used shoddy analysis to influence the Breivik trial serves as an indicator that all is not well in the Norwegian judicial system. Sadly, though, it seems many of these dubious practices will get renewed life when the verdict in the Breivik case falls on Friday.