In this article, there is frequent reference to sociopathy, narcissism and other mental conditions in relationship to terrorism. However, the author is no psychologist or psychiatrist. While he has solicited much free advice from two patient next-door neighbours who are psychologists, any factual errors about their discipline are his own.
When giving my basic lecture on terrorism, I always begin by describing how no definition of terrorism is that accurate. It is an activity with hazy boundaries intersecting with protest, governance, warfare and organized crime. In hindsight, I should have also mentioned sociopathic homicide.
Since July 22nd, when he set off a car bomb outside the Norwegian Prime Minister’s office and then massacred dozens of young members of the governing Socialist Party, Anders Behring Breivik has provoked debate among many of those who study terrorism.
It is safe to ignore the triumphant gloating from some commentators that he was a “right wing” “Christian Fundamentalist” and was “Islamophobic” (an impossible word – phobias are based on irrational fears and there are none concerning the Islamic Jihad).
Part of the debate that Breivik provoked is quite simple. Is he a terrorist with sociopathic tendencies or a sociopath who took on the colouration of a terrorist?
Sociopathy is a complex condition that can intermesh with several different personality disorders. It might be that he was a variety of narcissist, withdrawn to avoid criticism but feeling a lack of admiration and attention – and hoping to be feared or notorious in consequence. More simply, a sociopath has little or no sense of conscience and is unable to feel guilt or remorse.
Sociopathy in varying degrees is quite common and it might be argued that every terrorist is sociopathic to one degree or another. Some leaders of terrorist groups, like Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdish Worker’s Party or the late Velupillai Prabhakaran of the Tamil Tigers were obviously sociopathic. A diagnosis of sociopathy for the late (huzzah!) Osama bin Laden might not have been sustainable and it is too late to test the validity of such a suggestion. Many rank and file members of terrorist groups are clear of the taint of it. Still, it must be pointed out that the attraction of clinging to a radical ideology with a theory of blame attached to it is almost as good at providing somebody with permission to kill women and children.
Breivik displays all the hallmark symptoms of a highly ordered, fully functioning narcissistic sociopath – one symptom of which is an acute reluctance to belong to any organization he cannot control. The conservative party he joined threw him out four years ago and he belonged to no church. Interestingly, the Norwegian Army didn’t conscript him. He was obsessed with the Knights Templar and joined the Masons, but his lodge barely remembers him.
However, Breivik was very focused and meticulous in the planning and execution of his attack. He was very careful about mixing and testing his explosives, selecting the particular type of bullets for his rifle and ensuring that he knew the route exactly, having tested it with his GPS beforehand. It was very clear he had studied the ‘best practices’ involved in a number of terrorist attacks over the last 20 years and he copied them with same refinements of his own. The strategy he employed was – to put it frankly – simple and brilliant. One could fear that the likes of Lashkar e-Taiba or al Shabaab are already carefully studying his attack and planning to emulate it someday soon.
The debatable part of the issue comes from the 1,500 page manifesto that Breivik e-mailed out in all directions a few minutes before he embarked on his murder spree.
Narcissistic sociopaths are well-known in some of the worst chapters of criminal violence. One might think of the Texas Tower shooter, the man who murdered almost an entire class of first grade students in Dunblane Scotland in 1996 or the two students who started murdering fellow students in Columbine high school. They didn’t leave much in the way of communications behind them as they went out to kill, although the two students left some notes outlining which actors they hoped would play them in the Hollywood movie they felt sure they would inspire.
As an aside, please note the refusal to name the killers cited in this article is petty but deliberate. They hoped to gain recognition with their acts, even though they deliberately died in their commission and it seems just and right to refuse it to them, even posthumously. Next time this subject comes up — and it inevitably will — Breivik will likewise go unnamed.
In contrast, there are sociopathic terrorists like the Unabomber and President Kennedy’s assassin. Both of them were quite prepared to communicate. The Unabomber’s manifesto was cribbed by Anders Breivik and Kennedy’s killer was quite chatty in the police interrogation room. Neither was suicidal and both had hoped to evade captivity. Press reports from Norway suggest Breivik surrendered easily enough, emerging with his hands up as soon as the police finally showed up, appearing to look forward to his trial so he could explain his acts in greater detail. This evidently prompted a Norwegian judge to order he be kept in solitary confinement and that the trial might be a closed one.
This last measure seems unnecessary. Justice should be conducted accordingly, and Breivik is very unlikely to be an inspiring spokesperson for his cause. There are also things we need to learn.
The issue of ideology is the central part of the question – would he have been predisposed to commit such an attack without it? In short, did he look for an ideology to justify his attack or did he act that way because of things he had come to believe?
Terrorism can be much like an iceberg in one respect; while the violence is highly visible it represents a much larger body of belief or opinion. Consider the magnitude of relationships that could exist between a terrorist and his support network:
- 1 dispassionate killer who can murder without hesitation or delay.
- 10 terrorists prepared to kill at a remove with bombs or who can spray bullets at a target if several are involved.
- 100 close supporters who know the killers and terrorists well and will break the law to offer shelter, do the planning, stash the guns, collect the materials for bombs, etc.
- 1,000+ people who will funnel money and some information to the 100 but who won’t readily break the law or take too many risks. They know they are supporting the terrorists but act like they don’t while being ‘activists’ and running demonstrations.
- 10,000 people who will turn out for rallies and demonstrations without much prompting; they will not ask too many questions when asked for donations.
- 100,000 people who are uncomfortable with the idea of terrorists on their ‘side’ of an issue, but who generally share the same world view and will excuse the violence. They put time, money and effort into the general cause and are unaware that some of it is diverted to terrorism.
- 1, 000,000 who will contribute a little time, money and effort for political parties or causes but are unlikely to do too much more than this.
- 10,000,000 with a very general sympathy towards the cause and who might vote for a ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing party.
Consider, for example, the European Marxists like the Red Brigades of the 1970s and their very distant relationship to voters for Socialist parties or the supporters of Animal Liberation. The model isn’t perfect, but should provide a general idea of how things work.
Is there a fully formed ideology that Breivik adopted? Yes, no and sort of.
Yes: There is a new evolving spirit to the times (mentioned in “the Counter-revolt of the Common Man” –Newsletter 80 of the Institute, published in the autumn of 2010). The essay concluded: “And history is studded with incidents where elites failed to listen to the masses when the situation called for a revolution. Today’s contemporary political caste doesn’t bother to study history very often and tends to discount it. They are going to regret this. Heads on pikes might be a metaphor for now, but if they don’t change their ways, there is always the possibility that it might become literal. A time of revolution is coming and the revolutionaries are in a hurry. If there isn’t a revolution from above, there will be one from below.”
The specific issue is cultural survival. The coming revolutionaries are the Jacquerie and the Helots who have a very different existence from the too-often privileged lives of today’s self-appointed elites. The emerging revolutionaries have found that multiculturalism is a failure with regard to Islamic immigration (most seem fine with almost everyone else) and have learned the hard way to reject all of the teachings attached to the postmodern train of thought that has dominated the last 40 years.
No: The new ideology is still forming out of numerous different elements scattered throughout the Western World. It is hard to see Tea Party Members, the English Defence League and some of the latest utterances about the failure of multiculturalism from the leaders of Britain, France and Germany as a single articulate whole… yet. It is a discriminatory viewpoint that is usually applied to only one community. The English Defence League, for instance, has Jewish and Gay members and stands cheerfully side by side with Hindus and others against Sharia Law and Jihadist protestors – hardly the stuff of ‘White supremacists’ and ‘Neo Nazis’.
So far, this emerging movement has been much less articulate in countering the entrenched political establishment although it is evident to them that the entrenched guardians of unlimited immigration, blind tolerance, et al, need to be swept from office so that work can begin on repairing the damage.
Sort of: These nascent elements are far from forming a coherent whole but it is a clear as a third trimester pregnancy that something is coming soon. Breivik, if he was mostly motivated by ideology, seems to have eagerly rushed into the role of midwife and made a truly bloody mess of it. Moreover, while tensions are rising in Europe and America, the elements of this emerging movement are committed to activism not atrocity. Protests, petitions and elections are the chosen techniques of battle, not car bombs and the massacre of teenagers.
Politics and activism provide little scope for a sociopath except during revolutions where the likes of Mao, Stalin and Hitler can end up in leadership roles. But a narcissistic sociopath needs his dramatic defining moment and the humdrum of conventional politics would be too confining and not dramatic enough. Like a true narcissist sociopath, Breivik is a leader that nobody would follow, but he has not let that stop him.
The next question is fair enough: Would Breivik have acted this way in the service of another ideology? This is one of those ‘What if’ questions. In the final years of the Weimar Republic before Hitler got into power, the Nazis and the Communists were constantly squabbling with an intense dislike that had little to do with their party platforms. After all, both were murderous totalitarians. However, what really irked the two was that they were competing for the same sort of angry disenfranchised Germans as potential members. In the same way, around 1990 in Toronto, the ‘Anarchists’ of Anti-Racist Action and the ‘Neo-Nazis’ of the Heritage Front were squabbling over the same sort of kids.
Admittedly, Sociopaths are not the sort of people who join parties but they can adopt their trappings to justify their actions. Given the constant failures of the Jihadist ‘Home Growns’ in Europe, few of them have really generated much public profile, but about 10-15% tend to be converts. The Jihad seems to be part of the enabling make-up of a number of ‘sudden’ Jihadists who were lone attackers with firearms or cars in recent years.
In the history of Left Wing terrorism, there have been a few Sociopaths – Donald DeFreeze of the Symbionese Liberation Army may have been one. The gunman who shot Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (when trying to get President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) spoke like he was a Marxist, yet he had belonged to none of their parties.
Ultimately the answer to the dilemma may be irresolvable. Was he a narcissistic sociopath? Well he sure seems like one. As to whether it was this mental condition or the ideology that was more responsible for his attack, one is tempted to place a larger wager on the sociopathy involved. He might have attacked somebody, somewhere, anyway. The ideology he claimed to be championing is as yet unarticulated but it is swimming into view.