The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, July 25, 2011

Insanity or Belief?

In a departure from the usual archaeology nonsense, I just wanted to write briefly about last week's events in Norway. When news of the bombing and shootings initially broke out, many people believed that it was Muslim terrorists - unfortunately there is precedence for this assumption not only from 2001, but from both before and after that. However, it soon turned out that the bomber/shooter was neither Muslim nor Arab, but is a Norwegian who identifies himself as a Christian. And the attacks were prompted by his belief that Muslims were taking over his country - a commonly held belief amongst right-wing political circles in Europe, and increasingly in the U.S. as well.

Much of the talk went from discussing how the attacks were clearly the work of "Islamic extremists" to discussing how the actual terrorist "is simply a madman." But the fact of the matter is that nobody who I have heard dismiss him as a "madman" has actually bothered to see if there's been a psychiatric assessment done of the man. People who were perfectly comfortable blaming the attacks not on insanity but on Islam are now loathe to admit that the attacks could have been the work of anything other than a sick mind. As afar as I can tell, the reason for wanting to consider him a madman has less to do with any actual assessment of his mental health than with the fact that the political/religious views on which he acted are shared by many people in both Europe and the United States, and nobody who holds similar views or beliefs wants to admit that they might lead to violence (in this sense, they are no different than the Muslims I have met who want to insist that Al Queada is not an Islamic organization - just because it's not the religion as you practice it doesn't mean that it isn't the religion).

The man may, in fact, be insane. I don't know, and neither do any of the people who I have spoken with. He may also, however, simply be acting on political and religious views* that are held by many, but not held quite dearly enough for them to carry them through to their logical conclusion. Whether we like it or not, this is not necessarily insanity, it may simply be the well-known power of beliefs to shut off our ability to empathize with other people, and to see them as less than human. We saw it in the creation of Japanese internment camps during WWII, in less violent ways with the passage of Proposition 8 here in California, and with the bloodshed that accompanied the Soviet Revolution in Russia. While each of these was very different in a number of ways, in each case, political or religious beliefs served to make some group of people less human, less worthy of rights or respect, and deserving of mistreatment - whether simply the denial of legal rights and creation of slanderous claims all the way up to violent acts perpetrated against them.

Every belief system has the ability to do this. Whether or not this man was insane, his actions did not require insanity, just fervent belief.

*One interesting thing about his religious views, as shown in his own writing, is that they don't seem to be straight-forward Christian so much as a weird mix of Christianity, latter-day Nordic paganism, and supernatural justification for political views. So, there is another narrative also forming that this man is a right-wing Christian terrorist...the "right wing" part is probably correct, but the "Christian" part is much more complicated.


Lynn said...

I doubt that alleged perp would qualify as "insane." Judging solely on the basis of what I've read about him and by him, he was logical, coherent, and organized. His beliefs, as you note, are not out of the ordinary and can be seen on many blogs, websites, and even some (unnamed) news shows.

Neither the abortion clinic bombers or Timothy McVeigh were judged to be not guilty of reason of inanity and I don't think this guy will be, either.

Anthroslug said...

It seems that many people are quicker to label someone who has committed a crime "insane" when that person is perceived as being closer to one's self.

I have met very few non-Muslims who see the members of Al Qeada as insane, but many Muslims who do. By contrast, I know many American caucasians who claim that McVeigh was insane, but few non-Americans or non-caucasians who do.

It's as if we are more concerned with putting distance between ourselves and someone similar to us who committed an evil act than we are when the person committing the act has less in common with us.

Lynn said...

good point... hadn't thought about it like that.