Baron-Cohen on Anders Breivik

Anders Breivik in a red coat, being accompanied in a car by a Norwegian policeman with a red and gold badge with the word "Politi" underneathAnders Breivik: cold and calculating, yes – but insane? (from today’s Guardian)

This article by Simon Baron-Cohen appeared in today’s Guardian and questions the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia given him by “independent” experts in a 1,518-page report this week. According to him:

This diagnosis … has surprised some people following the case because the 1,518 pages of Breivik’s manifesto do not appear to be the incoherent output of “thought disorder”, but instead read like a rather linear, carefully crafted tome. It is the work of a man with a single vision, a single belief that he wishes to prove to the world in exhaustive detail, and in a logical fashion.

That most people would find his reasoning deeply offensive, and his actions on 22 July monstrously horrendous, is a separate issue. The question remains whether a man who is so cold and calculating in executing his logical plan is sane or, as the court psychiatrists have suggested, insane. If this is confirmed, his thoughts and murderous actions are to be viewed as the products of a mental illness, requiring treatment in a hospital rather than punishment in a prison.

Baron-Cohen was interviewed in a Norwegian newspaper the week after the crime as he had just published the Norwegian translation of his book Zero Degrees of Empathy / The Science of Evil (the latter being the American title), which I reviewed here in June. He diverges into a discussion on cognitive and affective empathy; cognitive empathy (being able to discern others’ emotions and put yourself in their position) is impaired in autism, while affective empathy (being affected emotionally by others’ suffering) is impaired or absent in what he calls antisocial personality disorder, a subset of which is psychopathy. While not speculating on Breivik’s diagnosis, he writes that low affective empathy is necessary to bring about such an action, although it does not explain it entirely; his ideological convictions clearly played a part also.

Personally, I have a strong hunch that the diagnosis was intended to obviate the need for a trial, to deny him any opportunity to make political speeches, and to manufacture a pretext to keep him incarcerated for life rather than the 21 years which is the maximum in the Norwegian penal code, even for mass murder (as in most of Europe, and all of western Europe, there is no death penalty). A professor of criminal law, Erling Johannes Husabo, was quoted on state TV as saying, “Their conclusion that he is insane is commonly reserved for persons with a more disturbed grasp of reality resulting in, for example, hallucinations. It must be a very peculiar type of psychosis he is suffering from, when he can execute his plans so diligently”. It is quite odd that his supposed paranoid schizophrenia has not come to light before now, particularly as he was in possession of firearms and ran a business that sold well-known explosive material (ostensibly for agricultural purposes).

As Baron-Cohen himself points out, his manifesto titled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence did “not appear to be the incoherent output of ‘thought disorder’, but instead read like a rather linear, carefully crafted tome … the work of a man with a single vision, a single belief that he wishes to prove to the world in exhaustive detail, and in a logical fashion”. That people would find the views expressed in it offensive does not make the author insane, any more than Hitler’s Mein Kampf, also the work of someone who later went on to commit mass murder (although much later than in this case), makes a similar case for Hitler. Whether Breivik’s empathy circuits were impaired is immaterial; history is full of people whose empathy circuits functioned perfectly when dealing with people they respected, but somehow switched off when confronted with someone they regarded as inferior, or threatening. Whites in the American Deep South in the early 20th century are a classic example, as are Germans in ethnically mixed eastern areas when Hitler started his invasions.

This article was an obvious attempt to fit Breivik into Baron-Cohen’s airtight world view, in which every human action can be explained with reference to his theories of empathy and systemising. As with so many of his examples from his books, however, he is confusing ideologically-motivated crime or war crime with common crime committed for motives of lust or gain. When confronted with perceived enemies, one does not let empathy get in the way of doing what one considers to need doing, something which may lead someone who would not normally act violently to commit very substantial acts of violence. It does not mean there is any pathology that could be identified before the fact, or even after.

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