A Norwegian court has ruled that right-wing racist, xenophobe, terrorist, and mass murderer Anders Behring Breviek was sane enough to be held criminally responsible for setting off a bomb in Oslo and massacring 77 people on Utoya Island last year. I have mixed thoughts on the verdict. Many will be disappointed in the ruling for practical reasons: under Norwegian law, the longest that Breivik can now be sentenced is 21 years, whereas an insanity judgment could have kept him locked up for life. According to the press, however, even his criminal sentence can be extended indefinitely if he is deemed dangerous, and, given the infamy of this case, he probably will spend his life in prison.
My disappointed with the court's decision stems from the declaration of sanity itself. Breviek himself has said that he doesn't remember much about his actions on that bloody day, and survivors report that he carried out the attack with cold efficiency, more like a machine than a conscious human being aware of his own actions and acting with a sense of volition. The expert psychologists who evaluated Beivik for the court had mixed opinions, with the first group declaring him a paranoid schizophrenic. His mental state was clearly not that of a normal, well-adjusted person. It was in reality, on that day when he slaughtered all those terrified children, that of a cold-blooded psychopath. Killing mass numbers of innocent children is, in the end, just an insane thing to do, and could only be done by someone who was in reality mentally unstable, whatever the judges' technical legal decision.
The ruling is significant because of the link between ideology and various forms of mental disturbance. Breivik was clearly driven by a hateful, racist, right wing ideology that he had developed while trolling the Internet. He built a bubble of self-referential paranoid ideas around himself, convincing himself that Norway was under existential threat from immigrants, Muslims, and multiculturalism. The court's declaration of sanity is disappointing because we need to understand that ideas have power, and that ideologies can actually drive people into insane mental state where they will commit horrific acts. And not just individual people; in the 20th century ideologies drove millions of people into collective acts of insane horror.
And it's not just extreme racist ideology or tea party conspiracy theories that are the problem: even moderate conservatives have ideas that are completely disconnected from reality as the rest of us see it. Conservatives routinely ignore the most well-informed, well-considered consensus evaluations of how the world works. For example, they don't understand economics, as the austerity agenda proves, and they don't understand climate change and the dangers it poses to civilization and the biosphere. They start from their premises and never let go of them even when repeated experience, history, and logic prove them wrong: austerity agenda in government budgets simply must be right, because in tough times a person has to tighten his or her belt. Never mind that government isn’t a person and its budget works differently. And climate change simply must be a lie perpetrated by evil liberal professors, never mind that nine of the last ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. Until we recognize the power of ideas to make people insane, we won’t fully be able to respond to the dangers posed to the world by conservatism.