When is a nutter not a nutter, but a politically motivated terrorist? And are those two states of being always mutually exclusive? Or are they always the same thing?
That first question was asked, in a fairly gentle manner, by a Muslim mate of mine on a social media site. The thread had been about the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox — and my friend was a little surprised to note the ease, if not eagerness, with which other commentators were ready to describe the alleged murderer as being simply a ‘loony’.
I do not know, and will not pre-judge, the state of mind of Thomas Mair, the man now charged with the murder of Jo Cox. The fact that he gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’ might or might not suggest that he is mentally ill rather than politically motivated. What is interesting is that so many people, at least on social media, appear to discount so readily the possibility of a political motive when a non-Muslim kills someone. My Muslim friend pointed out that if the person who killed an MP had been a different colour, had one of those stupid radical beards and had shouted out ‘Allahu Akbar!’ then people would be in no doubt that they were dealing not with a maniac, per se, but with a Muslim. And they would have come to that conclusion regardless of whether or not the man in question had a history of ‘mental health issues’. It would have been another Islamist crime, to add to all the others.
Muslims have become just about the only people who can murder and maim for political or ideological ends without us immediately conferring a diagnosis of madness upon them. Perhaps that is because they tend to do it quite a lot — and so we assume that because there are so many of them happy to blow themselves up or chop people’s heads off, they can’t all be mad. Or perhaps it is because we do not want to allow them the leeway of being ‘ill’.
The far right can get quite nasty from time to time, though, can’t it? As it happens, the same sort of debate took place in implacably liberal Norway, when Anders Breivik murdered 77 people, 69 of them members of the Workers’ Youth League enjoying a summer camp on the island of Utoya. The country, in its immense and immediate trauma, craved for Breivik to be a lone nutter, a mental case, despite his very clearly stated political aims and aspirations. He was from the furthest reaches of the far right, a man who idolised the Norwegian Nazi traitor Vidkun Quisling and wished for the liberal political establishment to be wiped out. A first psychiatric assessment quickly decided that he was deranged — narcissistic, paranoid, psychopathic and so on. But by the time that assessment had been published, the mood in the country had changed: now his politics had begun to be taken seriously and the threat seen as rather greater than just one lone madman with a gun fixation.
A second psychiatric test was ordered, which dutifully enough found him sane. Perhaps this was mediated not only by the change in the public’s attitude, but also by Norway’s exceedingly liberal approach to crimes carried out by people considered to be mentally ill. They are not considered responsible for their actions and so, if only a few months later it can be demonstrated that they have overcome their psychotic episode and can now live a peaceful and productive life in society, they are set free. This happened to a Norwegian murderer shortly after Breivik carried out his atrocities. The killer had eviscerated a friend and daubed weird slogans in blood all over the walls. He was out and about a year after he was certified mad. People didn’t want Breivik out after a year, so he had to be sane.
There is an interesting reverse Catch-22 about the Breivik case. Breivik demanded he should be considered sane. But the rational course of action for him would have been to plead insanity, given the laxity with which he would have been treated. So you might argue that in demanding to be considered sane, he was rather neatly demonstrating his insanity. I spoke to the psychiatrist who helped compile that second report, a chap called Agnar Aspaas. He found Breivik rather weird, for sure, and somewhat narcissistic, and suffering from an antisocial personality disorder — but not mad. ‘The attack itself does not tell me if he is sane or not.’
It is a difficult issue, muddied still further by our experience of Islamic atrocities. One of the psychiatrists who produced that first report on Breivik, the one which pronounced him insane, effectively discounted his political opinions: ‘My theory is that violence is the primary thought and that the political ideology comes along afterwards. His political world exists just to have a world to be psychotic in.’ One of the crucial differences between those two psychiatric assessments of Breivik was the issue of ‘psychotic neologisms’. According to the first report, he made up strange words to describe political events and political parties — but the later report discovered they were not necessarily made up at all by Breivik, nor were they neologisms — they were very au courant on neo-Nazi and white supremacist websites. So this stuff was revolving around not only in the head of Breivik, but among hundreds — possibly thousands — of others across the world.
Do we decide such people are not mad, then, because others share their delusions? Just on a somewhat smaller scale than the jihadis, with their beards and their bombs and their implacable cruelty?