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Mental Illness and Innocence?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

In July 2011 Anders Breivik killed 77 people. In November of 2011 he was declared insane. A group of psychiatrists declared that, at the time of the murders he was suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia. As a result, he will probably be “detained” in a closed hospital ward. It is to be presumed that, assuming he recovers from his illness, he will be released into society. From newspaper accounts of these results, most Norwegians are appalled and disproving of this outcome.

There is a political background to Breivik’s terrorist actions. In Norway an in all of Europe, there has been a backlash against Islamic terrorists that has lead to a kind of xenophobia or fear of foreigners, particularly Muslims.

The question of Breivik’s innocence or guilt as a result of the atrocities he committed is a complicated one because of it’s possible outcomes. For example, if he is innocent of murder because of insanity, does that mean that future terrorists will be judged insane and innocent? Does finding this man innocent due to insanity mean that all people far right of the political spectrum are insane?

Among those critical of the declaration of insanity are people who point out that Breivik was deliberate in his planning and tedious carrying out of the atrocities. Does this careful planning and execution that also has a clear political philosophy behind it reflect a sick mind?

It is quite understandable that murder is viewed as a type of crime that deserves either the death penalty or life in prison, particularly murder of these dimensions. At the very same time, there are circumstances when society not only allows for taking the lives of other people but encourages it. This is what happens in war. 

How is it to be explained that one type of killing is accepted while another kind is deemed murder? Is there a difference between murder, acts of terrorism and warfare? Psychology states that there are differences and these have to do with context. Within the context of war, society deems it necessary to take the lives of the enemy and even gives awards for doing so in serving the nation. In a similar way, acts of are planned and carried out by large groups of people who act within a political and religious philosophy much like nations. In fact, terrorists groups see themselves acting within the context of war and for the purpose of building a nation.

A good example is what happened during the American Revolution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States based the legitimacy of their violent acts on the fact that Great Britain lost it’s right to govern the colonies. All revolutionaries and base their actions on the principle that the governing authorities no longer have the right to govern and no longer have the support of the people. Recently, we have seen this in nations like Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria and others.

From the perspective of context, terrorists acts of violence are not murder because they are politically motivated and aimed at those who are deemed to have lost their right to govern.

Viewed in this way and given it’s careful planning and widespread support among the far right in Europe, Breivik’s actions are not those of a madman.

Finally, murder occurs in a totally different context. The context is personal, is not sanctioned and are a violation of the laws of the nation.

The television program, Harry’s Law, presented a similar legal and psychiatric issue when a man kills the people responsible for murdering his older brother. As it happens, this man has a history of Paranoid Schizophrenia. He carefully planned and executed his acts of revenge, knowing it was morally and legally wrong. At the end of the program, the jury found him guilty of murder despite the defense argument of a long history of mental illness.

What do you believe. Should there a verdict called “innocent by reason of insanity?” Are acts of terrorism acts of murder or war? Are terrorist crazy? Was Breivik insane or sane?

Your comments are encouraged in what could be a lively debate.

Allan N. Schwartz

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