‘Sane enough’: The case of Anders Breivik

Years ago, I lived near Stratford-upon-Avon in England, where the Royal Shakespeare Company is based. About once a month, I’d go to see whatever play was running. As soon as the curtain goes down, the actors would wash off their make up and leg it down to the Mucky Duck, a pub just down the road. This was, and is, a real pub. A coal fire, bare floorboards, the risk of cigarette ash in your beer ever present.

Some of the audience, me included, would arrive 10 minutes later. So you could rub shoulders with someone who’d just been involved in some drama. A murder perhaps, perhaps lots of murders,  a comedic deception here, an act of incest there. I remember well Mark Rylance as a manic Hamlet. Hamlet causes the death of quite a lot of people (and don’t get me going on what he did to Ophelia) and he expects—and gets—empathy.

My lasting impression of the actors, especially the rank-and-file actors, is that they regarded acting as a craft, a job. They were very down-to-earth.

One year, the RSC went to Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. There they performed several plays. I cannot remember which but I do know that Hamlet was one of them. They performed these plays ‘in-the-round’, in street clothes, with the audience of inmates gathered round. So, these actors became imagined characters who had committed all sorts of depravity—and they were watched by inmates who had really committed all sorts of depravity. They knew what murder felt like, so these actors really had to be at the top of their game.

The RSC published a book about the experience: Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor. I no longer have it, but I do remember the reflections of one of the actors (it may even have been Rylance). He remarked how normal the inmates seemed, and how fine the line between sanity and madness. They were there because of an ‘emotional storm’ which had consumed them and their victims. He remarked also that when they returned to perform at the RSC’s main theatre in Stratford, he felt that the audience—immobilized in rows and columns—felt more imprisoned and constrained than the mad of Broadmoor.

Some of you may have heard of Broadmoor through the book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. The madman was Dr. William Chester Minor, a surgeon who murdered and ended up in Broadmoor. The professor was James Murray. It was he who was responsible for putting together the first edition of the OED. The OED is a historical dictionary. It relied on an army of volunteers to seek out key appearances of each word over the centuries and submit this information to Oxford. The ‘madman’ was one of the dictionary’s most prolific contributors. He was mad enough to be in Broadmoor. He was sane enough to contribute to the OED.

I thought of all this when I read accounts of the trial of Anders Breivik. The current stage of the trial is to determine if he is sane or insane. Or, rather, if he is ‘sane enough’ to be held responsible for these crimes.

Sane enough.

Breivik’s case is a special one in that he claims his actions were politically motivated. He was ‘defending’ Norway from multi-culturalism. This claim is for the court to judge. As has been noted by some commentators, however, his rationale for this act of terrorism is interesting because it is not unlike the rationale of the United States in its ‘war on terror’. It is a matter of getting one’s retaliation in first.

As Hamlet says (to his mother)

I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

This sort of rationale, then, has a long history.

Note his claim to have consciously shut off his emotions. If he empathized with his victims he could not have done what he did. So he dehumanized himself. This, he explained to the court, enabled him to feel no empathy, show no mercy, to his victims. He may well add: is this not what soldiers are trained to do? Isn’t keeping emotions under control a normal precondition for rationality?

Ordinarily, one would think that someone who kills 77 innocent people, most of them still in their youth, would be insane by definition. But most acts of insanity are by people who ‘lose’ their reason, who are ‘overcome’ by emotion, not by people who have an ‘excess’ of reason.

Breivik’s audacious defence—that he is a sane political extremist— can illuminate what we regard as normal emotional behaviour. It is, however, not a defence that any court can accept, for rather obvious reasons.

It will be interesting to see how the court handles this.

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