Breivik update: Politics, terrorism and psychiatry

by · December 8, 2011

Candle-lit vigil in Oslo, soon after the 22 July massacre

Since my last piece for The Drum, the IPA’s Chris Berg has produced an attack on our book, On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe. We haven’t formally responded, but many of the comments below his article deal with his frankly desperate and unconvincing attempt to exonerate the Islamophobic and anti-multicultural Right from creating the context in which far Right violence is more likely.

In the meantime I was asked to write a short piece about the Breivik diagnosis for weekly medical industry paper Psychiatry Update. I’m reposting here as it includes newly available detail about the psychiatric report, and because Psychiatry Update is only available to registered healthcare practitioners (you can follow its tweet stream here: @PsychUpdate).


Diagnosing Breivik with psychosis is medically questionable and acts to separate the terrorist’s actions from their underlying political causes, writes guest blogger Dr Tad Tietze.

Psychiatric diagnosis has been the subject of public debate after two court-appointed psychiatrists found that confessed Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik – who murdered 77 people on 22 July – suffers from “Paranoid Schizophrenia”, and is therefore criminally insane and unfit to stand trial.

The finding sits uncomfortably with copious publicly-available information about Breivik’s actions and stated motivations, in particular his 1500-page Manifesto 2083 and his connections with a growing European far Right.

While obviously one can’t rule out psychosis, there is a jarring lack of diagnostic precision and cultural contextualisation evident in those sections of the report that are publicly available that serve to make its findings highly questionable.

Examples include the use of “bizarre delusions” to describe Breivik’s appalling but completely possible plans for national purification, the characterisation of common words from the far Right and online gaming communities as “neologisms”, and descriptions of his understandable fears of being monitored by police as “paranoid delusions”. Multiple references to “grandiose delusions” naïvely ignore the grandiose character of far Right ideology.

Most embarrassingly it rates his functional GAF score at 23, properly defined as “inability to function in almost all areas (e.g., stays in bed all day; no job, home, or friends)”. This, in someone who singlehandedly executed a complex terrorist plot!

The case also suggests limits to court and psychiatric processes in dealing with political crimes. After 22 July, the media in Norway rapidly shifted the focus from Breivik’s politics to errors in policing and examination of his personal and psychological history. Such depoliticisation mirrored what hard Right thinkers were doing to distance themselves from a massacre inspired by their ideas.

The two psychiatrists have, intentionally or not, followed suit. They concede they have no experience with “ideological terrorism” or the far Right. It also seems they didn’t integrate into their assessment Breivik’s (sickening but coherent) Manifesto, nor widely-available conservative and Islamophobic literature he drew on.

The reason for all this is probably very prosaic – with our professional focus on individual psychopathology, psychiatrists sometimes medicalise social and political phenomena that fall outside our own belief systems. In this case it may provide a perverse legitimacy to ideologues whose calls to “civilisational war” inspired Breivik.

Even in the unlikely event Breivik was truly “insane”, his actions cannot simply be divorced from the years he spent in far Right subcultures that constantly talk about doing what he actually did. If removed from this context, such a diagnosis puts fascist ideology in a straitjacket, and thereby allows its political significance – and any serious political response to it – to be evaded.

Filed under: fascism, psychiatry