Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Anatomy of the Norwegian Rampage : Our Rage Epidemic Spreads to Scandinavia

What part does society play in the proliferation of mass murderers?

Last Friday, thirty-two-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian citizen with an apparently privileged education and background, allegedly massacred at least sixty-eight teenagers at a political youth camp located on a tiny island just off the coast of Norway. He is also suspected of simultaneously bombing government buildings in Oslo, Norway's capital, killing eight additional victims. Such mass violence was virtually unheard of in Norway, which prides itself on its peaceful, egalitarian and cooperative society. Until now. And the repercussions are already rippling throughout the nation. Norwegians have suddenly lost their innocence. Evil is undeniably now openly in their midst.

There will be--and already has been--here and elsewhere much commentary on and armchair analysis of Mr. Breivik, his motivations, personality, social life, mental health, messianic tendencies, right-wing politics, religiosity, hatred toward Muslim immigration and massive Ted (Unabomber) Kaczynski-like  political manifesto (see my prior post on the Unabomber), close to a decade of careful and secretive preparation, reported obsession with body-building and steroid and stimulant use, bizarre claims to be a member of the ancient order of Knights Templar and self-proclaimed soldier whose heinous attack on unarmed teens was intended (much like Charles Manson's) to spark an imagined civil race war in Europe lasting sixty years, and his wish to wear a self-styled military uniform to court, where he is said to have believed he would be tortured and shot on the spot as a prisoner of war. Not likely in non-violent Norway, and therefore, all suspiciously paranoid,  grandiose and irrational. Indeed, Breivik's lawyer reportedly believes him to be "insane." Whether Breivik is psychotic, like, say, Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona, or merely evil, as others suggest, remains to be seen and will soon be determined by two court-appointed forensic psychiatrists or psychologists. (See my follow-up post on both the forensic findings and final verdict in the Breivik case.) Loughner, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was deemed incompetent to stand trial and refuses psychiatric treatment. A recent court ruling determined he could no longer be forced to take psychotropic medications involuntarily while incarcerated, which may mean he remains too severely psychotic to ever be tried for his alleged violent crimes. For me, that their alleged actions were evil is self-evident. But what drives someone to commit such evil deeds?  

Psychosis, even if diagnosed in Mr. Breivik, is never an adequate explanation for mass murder. Statistically, despite some correlation between psychosis and violent behavior, the vast majority of people suffering from a psychotic disorder do not commit such violent offenses. Still, like most human behavior, violence has meaning. It only seems "senseless" to the extent we are unable, or unwilling, to decode or comprehend it. So what compels someone like Breivik, with no known prior criminal history to allegedly behave so badly? So aggressively? So callously? So cruelly? So criminally? So irrationally? And why now? Rather than speculating here exclusively on Breivik's possible personal, social and sexual problems or psychiatric condition, I want to examine this evil deed in the context of the culture and context in which it occurred. A Norwegian culture in the throes of profound and, for some, apparently perplexing changes.Changes not unlike those being experienced by other countries like China, Great Britain, Germany and, for quite some time now, the U.S.

Norway is considered one of the wealthiest, most progressive, peaceful democracies on earth. The standard of living is high. Unemployment low. But, from what I have heard (having never visited), Norwegians, like the Japanese, tend in general to place less emphasis on the individual and more on collective culture. Not unlike China, Norway has recently become much less isolated and, like the rest of Europe in general, dramatically more heterogenous as a society. Consequently, there has evidently been smoldering anger, resentment or bitterness on the part of many citizens regarding immigration and its perceived or dreaded deleterious effects on traditional Norwegian identity and culture. So what becomes of such festering collective resentments?

Though each of us are existentially and morally responsible for our own actions and choices, violence is always at least partly a product of culture, just as the individual is always influenced in some measure by his or her environment or social milieu. When a society chronically devalues the individual or the daimonic--our innate human passions, including anger or rage-- there will sooner or later be devastating explosions of violence. This is one price of that perennial conflict noted by Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents between the powerful cultural pressures of repression, rationality, adjustment and conformity on one side, and the vital forces of freedom, dignity, individuality, integrity, passion and creativity on the other. Any time the latter values are too long frustrated or suppressed, psychopathology, anger, rage and, eventually, violence are sure to surface. We have seen this happening here in the United States for decades now, and more recently, such despicable carnage is rearing its ugly head in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Japan, China and elsewhere.

These seemingly random detonations are at least partly symptomatic of a broader, systemic problem. "In a repressive society," wrote psychologist Rollo May (1969), "individual members, representatives of the daimonic of their times, express vicariously . . . atrocities for the society as a whole." Breivik's depraved and evil deed is reminiscent of prior mass murders in myriad other places over the past few decades. There was James Huberty's infamous 1984 mass shooting at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, in which he killed twenty-one unlucky customers. In 1989, a disillusioned and angry young man, Patrick Edward Purdy, opened fire on a schoolyard full of children in Stockton, California with an AK-47, wounding thirty and killing five before turning the gun on himself. Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant, randomly killed five passengers and wounded eighteen others on New York's Long Island Railroad in 1993.  Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of a Federal building in Oklahoma City killing close to two-hundred victims is echoed partly by Breivik's alleged militaristic brand of "domestic terrorism."  In March, 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, a middle-aged man with a history of odd behavior and a fascination for handguns fired on a gymnasium filled with five and six-year-olds, slaying sixteen and seriously wounding a dozen more before committing suicide. And in that same year, in Tasmania, Australia, a twenty-eight-year-old male armed with a rifle inexplicably massacred thirty-five people en masse, wounding eighteen. And then, of course, there are the horrendous spate of school shootings in recent years, including Columbine and Virgina Tech (see my prior posts) as well as the one in Germany in which seventeen-year-old Tim Kretschmer killed sixteen (mostly females) and wounded eleven at a secondary school before committing suicide. In 2008, Tomohiro Kato, a 25-year-old male factory worker, was charged with angrily ramming pedestrians with a rented truck and then randomly stabbing seventeen bystanders, killing seven, in Tokyo's popular Akihabara district. In this case, the killer literally telegraphed his intentions by posting several explicit messages on an internet bulletin board just prior to his attack. (See my prior post.)  A sexually frustrated forty-eight-year-old George Sodini strolled into an all female aerobics class at LA Fitness in Pittsburgh, PA in 2009, shot three young women to death, wounded nine, and then also committed suicide. (See my prior post.) It was in that same year that thirty-nine-year-old Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, murdered thirteen fellow soldiers, wounding thirty-eight at Fort Hood in Texas. (See my prior post.) And in 2010, there were six vicious attacks on school children in China over a period of just sixty days. (See my prior post.)  In the most recent horror, a forty-eight-year-old man with a kitchen cleaver attacked a kindergarten class in Nanzheng county, hacking to death seven children, two adults, and wounding twenty more before committing suicide. The first incident in this shocking outbreak of carnage occurred in March of last year when a forty-two-year-old male murdered eight elementary school children in southern China. Other assaults included a jobless man infuriated over a series of personal and professional frustrations slaughtering twenty-nine children and three adults at a different kindergarten. So this phenomenon of mass murder is not something new at all, but has unfortunately been proliferating. Now it has sadly happened in Norway

While we are inclined to perceive such violent offenders as mentally ill, psychotic, psychopathic, bipolar, depressive, neurobiologically aberrant, the truth is that much of their presumed "madness" is primarily a manifestation of this pent up personal and collective anger or rage turned destructive, negative, pathological and evil. In this sense, such deeply troubled individuals express in part what is culturally unconscious. As Carl Jung contended, we are subject not only to the forces of Freud's personal unconscious, but to the sometimes insidious influences of a shared "collective unconscious" too. Every culture has its own unique collective unconscious, it's sociological shadow, comprised at least partially of that which has been most devalued, denied or derogated socially. But, even in the healthiest of cultures, there will always be some conflict between that which is in the best interest of the system and the individual. This is one of the most critical functions of psychotherapy and what makes it is so socially important: To assist individuals in their struggle to productively be part of society while at the same time maintaining and cultivating their individuality and creativity. This sort of psychotherapy ultimately benefits both the individual and collective. Without recourse and access to such psychotherapy, violent and/or self-destructive behavior in systems under stress becomes much more likely in my estimation.

While we know that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," we could consider the contrary also to be true: The absolute absence of personal power and sense of significance can be equally corruptive. Powerlessness contributes to the prevalence of violence. Individuals who perceive themselves as helpless, powerless, insignificant victims of society sooner or later reach the embittered and hopeless point of feeling that since they have nothing to lose--no power, influence, recognition, prestige, significance nor status--violence is their sole alternative, their last remaining means of making some potent personal statement. Violence looks like the only voice left to them. In this sense, some violence is a glaring symptom of social dis-ease. An expression in some cases of what German psychiatrist Dr. Michael Linden calls "post-traumatic embitterment disorder." (See my prior post.)

When individuals fail to find ways in which to constructively express themselves in society, to find meaning, purpose and significance within the system, they will sometimes create their own narrative reality (we refer to this psychiatrically as a "delusional system") in an attempt to gain social recognition, status and empowerment. Much like playing a violent video game, they create an alternate world in which they can be the important, powerful or heroic person they could not truly become in society. For example, Jared Lee Loughner withdrew from the outer world, preferring his unconscious dream world in which he, among other things, had the power to fly. And, if as some are suggesting, Breivik's claims of having accomplices and terrorist cells supporting him turn out not to be true, if he was in fact a "lone wolf," he too may have been living in just such a fantasy world of his own creation. No "broken brain" or causal "biochemical imbalance" theories are required. But, rather, a pathological psychological perversion of the basic human need, indeed, a wicked rage for recognition, power, significance and even fame via infamy, gone wild. In clinically paranoid people, the paranoid delusions both stem from and reinforce fear, anxiety and anger in a vicious and potentially violent psychological cycle. Basically, in my view, we are actually dealing with a type of anger disorder in most of these cases. (See my prior posts).

Almost four decades ago, Rollo May described the dilemma this way: "Our particular problem in America at this point in history is the sense of individual significance, a loss which is sensed inwardly as impotence. . . . So many people feel they do not and cannot have power, that even self-affirmation is denied them, that they have nothing left to assert, and hence that there is no solution short of a violent explosion." (Power and Innocence) This is still very much our situation today. Here in America, but also abroad. We are witnessing (see my prior post) a "wicked rage for recognition" in these terrible events, stemming often from a profound frustration of what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called "healthy narcissism": the inherent human need for recognition, affirmation, acceptance, sense of significance. As with any basic human need, when healthy narcissism is negated or repressed, it returns with a vegeance in the form of neurotic or pathological narcissism. (Of course, excessive reinforcement of even healthy narcissism can lead to pathology too.) And this initially very American epidemic of explosive violence, this lethal cancer, is clearly rapidly metastasizing to other far off parts of the planet. Nowhere and no one is immune.

Mass murder, terrorism, runaway anger, rage and violence are psychologically and sociologically perhaps our toughest challenge today, our very own twenty-first century Sphinx, posing her enigmatic riddle as to how to effectively combat this savagery. How can we solve the Sphinx-like puzzle presented by those members of society who perpetrate mass murder? And possibly prevent or mitigate such future evil deeds? Ancient Thebes somehow survived their rapacious Sphinx, a terrifying mythical creature who violently devoured its citizens. How? Oedipus saved the city by solving the seemingly impossible riddle posed by the Sphinx, who then disappeared. She was outwitted by Oedipus taking the riddle she posed seriously and deciphering the correct answer to it. How shall we answer the metaphorical Sphinx's riddle today?

We cannot halt progress. Social change brought on by globalization and technology is inevitable. Heterogeneity is replacing cultural homogeneity, along with all the meaning, sense of security, comfort, familiarity and national identity it once provided people. Rapid social transition can be psychologically traumatizing, as Dr. Linden observed in treating East German immigrants to West Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall. In reality, Western culture is indeed currently at war with and under constant threat of attack by radical Muslim jihadists. The world is in flux. And with it, fear, anxiety,  frustration, anger or rage are quite predictable. When this existential anger is mismanaged, resentment, embitterment and sometimes violence and evil ensue. There is no going back. The answer then to this enigmatic evil, our answer, both as society-- and particularly as mental health professionals--must be to better understand the paradoxical nature of anger and rage and how to deal with it more constructively. Right now. Both therapeutically and socially. Are such individuals so angry because they are mentally ill? Or could it be that they are mentally ill because they are so angry ("mad") and have found no constructive outlet for that rage? Is it the chicken or the egg? In any case, it is no longer useful, sufficient or responsible to dismissively label such violently angry individuals mentally ill---though that they may be by any definition. Nor will the present trend of treating them solely with suppressive psychiatric medications suffice. The underlying anger and both its personal and sociological sources must be directly acknowledged and addressed. Mass killers running amok among us painfully symbolize society's (and psychotherapy's) failure and future challenge: Teaching us how to more creatively live with and manage the daimonic or be violently devoured by it. We will decide our own destiny. Let us choose wisely.

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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