‘Insane’ mass murderer may escape prison term

Anders Breivik killed 77 people, mostly teenagers, in a horrifying shooting spree in July this year – but psychological evaluators say he was insane, and needs treatment, not punishment.

Adrian Pracon was working at an information booth on Norway’s Utoeya Island when Anders Breivik attacked. ‘He was very sure,’ Pracon remembered later. ‘Calm and controlled. He looked like he knew what he was doing.’

Teenagers, crowded onto the island for a political youth camp, screamed and fled as Breivik coolly opened fire. Pracon saw young people shot down as they ran. Some were machine-gunned in the water, trying to swim for safety. Others were executed in hiding places where they had taken cover.

Pracon himself took a bullet in the back, and lay still where he fell, covered by other bodies. He was so close to the killer that he could feel the heat from the barrel of his gun and hear the heavy sound of his breath. But he was lucky – Breivik didn’t see him, and moved on.

Many were less fortunate. Altogether, 69 people were killed on Utoeya Island, as well as eight more in an earlier bombing in Oslo. The massacre was the worst episode of violence in Norway since the horrors of the Second World War.

But, following a ruling by court psychiatrists, the perpetrator of that terrible violence now looks likely to escape punishment.

This is not because anyone doubts that he committed the crime. The murderer will escape prison only if Norwegian courts follow the recommendation of experts – who have declared Anders Breivik to be clinically insane.

Insanity is a valid defence under the laws of many countries around the world, including Norway. Rules around it differ, but the central idea is that an insane person cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. Breivik, say psychologists, didn’t kill because he was evil. He killed because he had a disease: in this case, paranoid schizophrenia which caused him to suffer from psychotic delusions and distorted his view of reality. If the court upholds this view, he will end up not in prison but in a mental ward.

Kill or cure

Should men like Breivik be treated as invalids or as criminals? There are two extreme views, which most legal systems steer between. One is that anyone who commits an evil crime – as Breivik did – must be evil themselves, regardless of their sanity or state of mind. Someone like Hitler, for example, must have been mad, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t morally disgusting too.

On the other side are those who say that ‘evil’ is a misleading and outdated idea. Fundamentally, they argue, people behave the way they do because of circumstances, upbringing, genetics and psychological condition. Mass murderers have very sick minds, but it is nonsense to say they have ‘evil souls’. They need treatment, not punishment.

You Decide

  1. What is ‘evil’? Is it a useful concept?
  2. Is moral responsibility possible without free will? What is free will, and do humans have it?


  1. Imagine you were the judge in the Breivik case. Write a speech to the court revealing what sentence you will be ordering for him and why.
  2. Do some further research into the philosophical idea of ‘determinism’. Do you think it is true? Make a list of two or three key arguments for and against and evaluate which ones are stronger.

Some People Say...

“Who cares why he did it. They should lock Breivik up and throw away the key.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So Breivik may not have been responsible for his actions?
That’s the idea – although a lot depends on what you mean by responsibility.
Go on...
Philosophically, there is a strong link between responsibility and choice. We tend to think that people are only responsible for things they choose to do. Insanity interferes with the ability to make choices (by cutting people off from reality).
What’s complicated about that?
It gets complicated when you start thinking about what it means to make a choice. If our choices are determined by our upbringings and circumstances, for example, do we really choose at all? What if our choices are determined by the movement of atoms in our brains: i.e. by the laws of physics? Could ‘physics made me do it’ be a good defence in court? Philosophers have argued long and hard over this sort of question.

Word Watch

Like its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway is known for its low crime rates and liberal social policies. The rarity of such killings made Breivik’s shooting spree all the more shocking.
In this case, special experts in criminal psychiatry. Psychiatrists are different from psychologists in that they study mental illnesses. Psychologists study the mind in general.
Paranoid schizophrenia
A fairly common kind of schizophrenia which causes sufferers to mistakenly believe other people or groups are out to get them. Paranoid schizophrenics can suffer from hallucinations and delusions of grandeur.
Mental ward
Although Breivik might avoid going to prison, he will not be released into society. If found to be insane, he is likely to be kept in a secure mental hospital for the rest of his life.

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