The Norway Attacks Is Delusion a Valid Defense?

Anders Breivik has admitted to murdering 76 people in cold blood but claims he is innocent nonetheless. Can he use his delusions as a defense for his horrific crimes? Several delusional criminals who preceded him provide the answer: No.

Anders Breivik leaving an Oslo courthouse on Monday.
REUTERS/ Aftenposten

Anders Breivik leaving an Oslo courthouse on Monday.

A Commentary by


Someone this malicious and repugnant can't possibly be normal. Someone who is clever enough to initially unsettle the capital with a bombing attack to lure the police to the site, only to appear on an island soon afterwards, disguised as a police officer, to kill innocent children and adolescents simply has to be insane. And if things had gone the way he had apparently planned, many more would have died. No -- this sort of person is not normal.

But the equation offered all too often in connection with inconceivably horrific events -- the more barbaric the crime, the more disturbed, insane and emotionally disturbed the perpetrator -- isn't as simple as it seems.

Anders Breivik may very well be deluded, someone who didn't fit in and went astray instead, someone who became lost in crude fantasies. But his cold-blooded brutality alone, which tempts us to consider him insane, does not necessarily prove that he is not culpable for what he did -- as his defense lawyer is attempting to argue.

Were that the case, Nazi thugs who massacred and drove millions of men, women and children into the gas chambers -- and, more importantly, those who dreamt up this lunacy and issued the orders -- would have been the innocent victims of their mental illness. Hitler, Stalin and the like -- history is full of people we call monsters, beasts or animals, because they seem to lack everything that makes us human. Napoleon and other famous war heroes, who drove their soldiers into senseless, brutal deaths, those responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, the Crusaders, the Holy Inquisition, the witch burners, the suicide bombers of today, those who embark on killing sprees. No animal behaves quite the way human beings do from time to time.

Acted Too Deliberately

The terrorists from the Red Army Faction in Germany, who committed brutal killings, glossed over their crimes with supposedly noble political goals, claiming that they wanted to lead mankind out of its current misery into a supposedly better world. When they were on trial in Stammheim, there was much talk of the brutality of their crimes, but not about any lack of criminal responsibility. The prosecution argued that they had planned their crimes too carefully and acted too deliberately for that.

The brutality of a crime per se does not lead to the perpetrator's lack of criminal responsibility. But it can give rise to the question of what induced this person to commit the crime. It can prompt a psychiatric investigation to determine whether the perpetrator may have acted in a state of temporary insanity. Or whether his mental abilities at the time of the crime may have been impaired to the extent that he cannot be held liable.

In Germany, a concept known as "severe other emotional abnormality" is used to describe disorders that can reduce or even eliminate culpability, provided they are sufficiently serious and play a key role in the crime. But it isn't just any disorder that satisfies these criteria.

The woman who stabbed the German politician Oskar Lafontaine in 1990 was obsessed with delusions that drove her to commit the crime. As a result, she could not be convicted but was admitted to a psychiatric hospital instead. Perpetrators who commit vicious crimes as a result of a severe sadistic perversion, like Jürgen Bartsch, who peeled the skin off his victims before killing them, are usually not punished, or not punished as severely, as "normal" criminals. This also applies to people suffering from psychosis, who hear inner voices or are filled with delusional ideas and, heeding them, kill or injure other people.

But their institutionalization does not mean that their life there is more pleasant than it would be in a prison. Most of all, those committed to psychiatric institutions have no fixed date on which they can expect to be released, as is the case with convicted criminals who are considered criminally liable.

Pathological Reasons?

Court psychiatrists classified the man who became known as the "Cannibal of Rotenburg" as criminally liable, despite his severe sexual disorders and obsessive behavior -- and he was sentenced to life in prison.

He has already been incarcerated for eight years, and eventually he will have served his sentence. During his trial, the court psychiatrists felt that therapy would not be particularly promising, which significantly reduced the prospects of his being institutionalized. What happens when it comes time to release him? Will he be reclassified as insane, after having been classified as normal until then, so that he remains behind bars?

If the Norwegian killer is declared criminally liable, he can expect a prison sentence of 21 years. This is the maximum penalty in Norway, although it can be extended in five-year increments through a procedure known as "safe custody." If he is declared incompetent as a result of psychological disorders, he will be institutionalized indefinitely.

But first he will be examined by court psychiatrists to determine whether there are pathological reasons for his brutal behavior, or whether it is simply one of his character traits.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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