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To call Anders Breivik a monster is to distance ourselves from the worst aspects of human nature

We are back to the mystery of evil: none of the details we know about his life explain what he did

By on Wednesday, 27 July 2011

People place flowers near Norway's Utøya Island  (CNS photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters)

People place flowers near Norway's Utøya Island (CNS photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters)

I have been reading an irritating book: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan. Why is it irritating? Because it is the author’s contention that parents don’t have much influence on the way their children turn out – so why not enjoy more of them along the way?

I am all in favour of people “having more kids” as he puts it – but not for the principal reason he gives. Having done loads of research into the “nature versus nurture” argument, Caplan concludes – from adoption and identical twin studies – that our children generally turn out as nature – their genes – dictates. So why sweat over extra maths and piano lessons when the outcome is a foregone conclusion?

This is an ancient debate, sometimes swinging towards the left: circumstances and the environment make a huge difference, and sometimes veering towards the right: our destiny is more or less a foregone conclusion and you can’t do much about it. In this balancing act Caplan does allow a little free will to enter the argument – but only a little.

A Catholic view is richer. It allows for five influences on personhood: genetic inheritance, nurture, free will, the influence of grace and the temptation to evil. How these different forces play out in the drama of our daily choices and in our lives remains a mystery. But our free will is a key factor; otherwise we can’t be held responsible for our behaviour and the notion of personal culpability flies out the window.

I was thinking all this when the news broke about the massacre in Norway. Unable to comprehend the appalling depths to which human nature can sink, amateur psychologists will rush to the conclusion that the perpetrator of the slaughter in cold blood of at least 76 people must have been mad. “No normal person could have done this” – this is the line that Anders Breivik’s defence lawyer is apparently taking. He has accepted an impossible brief and I don’t blame him.

Yet we still have to distinguish between someone, for example, who is high on drugs and who hears voices telling them to kill (I know personally of a case of this kind, where the defendant, who had stabbed her parents to death, was found unfit to plead and was sent almost immediately to a secure mental hospital for life) and someone who acts in cold blood, planning their outrageous deed over a long time.

Breivik is alleged to have spent nine years planning the bombing and shooting atrocity. We have also learnt that he is middle-class and well-educated, the son of a diplomat (from whom he has been estranged for the past 15 years); that his parents split up when he was a baby and that there are several step and half-siblings; that he has long been a member of far-Right organisations; that he is a Freemason; that he likes to post pictures of himself on his website, wearing grandiose uniforms; that he does not have a girlfriend. None of these facts individually can possible explain his behaviour. Even added together they do not point to a potential killer: only to someone who is a bit of an oddball.

We are back to the mystery of evil: an absorption in the self to the complete exclusion of others; a willed selfishness and lack of empathy; a studied narcissism – describe it how you will. To use the word “monster” of Breivik is only an attempt to distance ourselves from the worst aspects of our own human nature. Those who are honest with themselves know what crimes they could commit behind the lace curtains – but for the grace of God.

When I hear of cases like this, mercifully rare, my first thoughts always go to the parents of the perpetrator rather than to those of the victims. To mourn the violent loss of an innocent life is a tragic event for parents and we pray for their suffering. But to know that your own child has caused this loss in an act of cold-blooded murder is much worse. Breivik and his parents need our prayers, too.

  • Mike

    Good article. I can’t help feeling though that 15 years without any contact with one’s father during formative years is a significant factor in all of this. The majority of felons serving sentences in jails had absent fathers. 

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I agree entirely that it would be wrong of us to label him abnormal simply because of his violent acts and also that the parents – at least the mother – must be having a hard time of it.

    I find it generally discomforting, at least in Scandinavia, that the tendency is to conclude that any monstrous deeds committed by an individual are due to insanity; unless of course the perpetrator is a non-Scandinavian, in which case the deeds are normally blamed on the culture.

    It is a very mechanistic way of viewing human beings and leaves very little space for free will, or, as you rightly point out, culpability and responsibility for one’s actions.

  • Ellen Ringstad

    Thank you for your views on this matter. I have quoted you in my blog.

    http://refusetobeacoward.com/2011/07/28/innocence-lost/

    Yours sincerely,
    Ellen Ringstad
    Norway.

  • AB

    Judging from the Scandinavian press, few experts or others there believe that Breivik is insane or irresponsible for his actions. It seems obvious enough that he is ‘abnormal’ in the sense of having less capacity for compassion than most of us, whatever the causes behind this are. (Psychopaths are not insane.)

    As we all know, views on the dignity of human life are unfortunately flawed in much of the world, so why pick on Scandinavia?

  • Martin

    A Catholic view is richer. It allows for five influences on personhood: genetic inheritance, nurture, free will, the influence of grace and the temptation to evil. How these different forces play out in the drama of our daily choices and in our lives remains a mystery. But our free will is a key factor; otherwise we can’t be held responsible for our behaviour and the notion of personal culpability flies out the window.

    Whilst i wouldnt only limit these to a Catholic theology (within a Christian context), very good point and well made.

  • Anonymous

    A very thoughtful post. I agree labels like ‘monster’ are not helpful. I believe all humans have many facets, and that there is good and evil in all of us. Even the very worst of us have some humanity. 

    To describe evil in people as either inherent or all encompassing in people, is only to shy away and foolishly deny the uncomfortable complexity of the human nature and the human mind. 

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    Perhaps because Scandinavia has a very “holier than thou” mentality which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny particularly well.

    I have been fortunate enough to avoid the Scandinavian press on this one, so it might be true that we have had few experts calling him insane or irresponsible (I doubt it). The word on the street though says otherwise….I can write that because I live in this region, and I have heard it often.

    In any case, I did not mention this particular case when touching on this issue in my earlier comment – although I could easily have made a point of doing it. I simply observed that in nearly all cases in Scandinavia in which a foreigner commits a heinous deed it is blamed on the culture whereas if the same act is committed by Northern Europeans it is blamed on insanity.