Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Mass Murderers With a Mission

Logic and planning can still signal disturbed perception.

The trial in Norway for mass killer Anders Behring Breivik has focused to this point on his mental state. It’s no surprise to see mental health experts divided over whether he is psychotic or a narcissistic psychopath (and he could be both).

Breivik insists he is neither, because a finding of mental illness “delegitimizes” what his slaughter politically represents, and a finding of psychopathy turns what he views as morally right into a self-indulgent act of predatory evil.

Breivik is proudly a right-wing extremist, and his massacre of 77 people last summer in Norway was supposedly a wake-up call, in part to punish and in part to get likeminded people on board. He claims the attacks were the "necessary" elimination of people who had betrayed Norway by embracing Muslim immigration.

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Resisting the finding that he is irrational, Breivik spells out his mission in simple terms. He is a “warrior” in a “low intensity” civil war, chosen to save his people. He started planning this massacre a decade ago, carefully programming himself with video games to dehumanize his victims. His apparent lack of empathy is part of the plan. He views himself as a knight, doing what must be done.

He reminds me of Herbert Mullin, a spree killer in Santa Cruz who likewise perceived himself as a savior. He had formed the notion back in the 1970s that the earth kept a balance sheet of life and death, and when the death toll from normal incidents dropped, a natural disaster restored the balance.

Mullin believed that, because his birthday was April 18, the same date as Albert Einstein's death and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he'd been chosen as the “scapegoat” of his generation. He had a mission to save California from a devastating earthquake. This required the deaths of 13 people and he would have to kill them.

To avoid outright murder, Mullin first tried enlisting in the military, because he believed that as a soldier he could legitimately kill. Failing this, he formed Plan B and bought a gun.

Mullin began on a Friday the 13th in October 1972 and ended on February 13th the following year. The victims, he claimed, had telepathically signaled that they were willing sacrifices. Using a knife, gun, or baseball bat to slay them, Mullin kept going until he was done. “A minor natural disaster avoids a major natural disaster,” he believed.

Mullin had been a normal child, raised Catholic. There was no lack of love in his two-parent home. They had little money, but they lived in a good neighborhood. Mullin did well in school, played sports, and had friends.

Just after high school graduation, Mullin’s best friend was killed in a car accident. Afterward, Mullin withdrew. At some point he developed delusions that his parents were purposely retarding his development and were telepathically communicating to others to stay away from him. He also started dabbling in drugs.

Calling himself a “human sacrifice,” he began an excessive letter-writing campaign to politicians. He also endured several hospitalizations and became increasingly more aggressive. He was consistently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given medication, but he took it sporadically or not at all.

So, he achieved his goal; he killed 13 people. Mullin’s trial involved psychiatric experts who were split about whether he was sane or insane during each incident. Mullin also testified and he was quite articulate about his "killjoy" philosophy of murder. If one did not listen to the bizarre content, Mullin seemed perfectly reasonable.

“Every hour, four people die by gunshots in the United States,” he said. “Every hour, four people die on the highways. Every hour, four women die in the hospital because of breast cancer. Heart attacks, four or five an hour. So, there is a steady flow of death to keep the coastline from cataclysmizing and keeping the earth in orbit.” He did not want to kill, he said, but in the interest of the greater good, he had done so. "A rock doesn't make a decision while falling, it just falls."

Mullin had planned for it, prepared for it, and had calmly carried it out. He was an extremist, with strange beliefs, perhaps, but also with—to his mind—a noble goal.

The jury listened to the conflicting psychiatric testimony and learned about Mullin’s complex mental health history, but in the end they decided that he'd known what he was doing when he'd killed and that it was wrong. His delusion, with its tight internal logic, bore little weight. The moral framework and the resulting salvation of California remained his private interpretation.

There’s the rub for Breivik’s proceeding: Although reason does not ensure sanity, a delusion doesn’t necessarily prove a lack of legal awareness.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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