Norway killer mad or bad?

by Joanne Black / 06 August, 2011
A “spree” killing like that in Norway may seem to be the act of a madman, but offenders in such cases are not usually mentally ill, say forensic psychiatrists.
In the wake of the recent tragic events in Norway in which political extremist Anders Breivik admitted bombing the Oslo city centre, then shooting some 68 teenagers dead, many people have described his actions as mad or crazy. Even Breivik’s

lawyer considers him insane.

But forensic psychiatrists say mad and crazy are layman’s terms, not medical ones, and there may be no mental illness involved.

“Just because some behaviour was bizarre and unacceptable does not mean it was the result of a mental disorder,” Los Angeles-based forensic psychiatrist Dr Praveen Kamban told the Listener this week. Along with their medical work,

Kamban and colleagues Dr Eric Bender and Dr Vasilis Pozios run a company called Broadcast Thought, which advises the entertainment industry on the accurate depiction of mental illness in fictional characters.

The three men say they can’t comment on Breivik specifically, not having examined him, but all have “dealt with psychopaths on a fairly common basis”, Pozios says.

“In general, these mass or spree murders are not usually motivated by a mental illness or a mental disorder, and are not necessarily even done by psychopaths,” he says. In fact, the person who commits a mass or spree killing may be able to make a plan, execute it and act very rationally.

“For example, a terrorist who for political reasons committed a mass murder may not necessarily be a psychopath, because they may be operating within the extended radical ideology that is culturally appropriate for them. So the behaviour, while not being legal and not something we want from a societal perspective, may not be psychopathic.” A psychopath, he says, might have no empathy or sense of remorse and be callous or uncaring.

“This is a case where we want to be careful we don’t take a behaviour such as killing and pathologise it – in other words, explain it away as the result of a mental disorder. Many patients who do suffer from mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depressive disorders or schizophrenia, are not violent. Only in very specific circumstances are people with mental disorders violent, like in acute psychosis, predominantly with paranoid features.”

Breivik is reportedly a fan of violent video games, but the psychiatrists say many other people are, too, yet they never kill anyone.

“Often you will see that when someone has committed an act of mass or spree murder, their activities – like their postings on the internet – and political views will be highly scrutinised,” says Pozios.

“After the act has been done, all those factors will then be pointed at by people, saying, ‘Aha, that’s the cause.’ But we really can’t say that, because no one can say for certain in these individual instances whether or not those pieces of evidence were positive in the act in question.” Spree murders are so rare it is hard to conduct adequate research, he says.

Kamban says sometimes there can be a “mission” aspect to the behaviour of killers who are trying to promote a political viewpoint, with the perpetrators wanting to use the media to gratify themselves.

“That’s an important thing for the legal system and law enforcement to consider. In these types of situations, do they want to air the interviews with the alleged perpetrator; do they want to air the trial? What sort of effect would that have on the future behaviour of other potential parties, and other potential offenders?”

Many people are afraid of events such as what happened in Norway because they are hard to predict and occur “seemingly randomly in the backyard. There are no clear warning signs and in an effort to make sense out of it, we’ll look back retrospectively and try to figure out the cause,” Kamban says.

Bender says even with people who are mentally ill, predicting behaviour is very hard. Psychiatrists are always on the lookout for patients having fantasies about violence or suicide, but even when there are clues, it is difficult to predict what someone might do.
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