Anders Behring Breivik: Maybe he’s not insane


Copycat crimes

Anders Behring Breivik has left behind a screed,  and large parts of it appear to be lifted from another screed, penned by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Over a year ago, I interviewed Jean-Marie Apostolidès, the French literary scholar who befriended Kaczynski, at his lawyer’s request. Apostolidès also has a background as a psychologist.  He insists that Kaczynski is not insane.

I wrote then:

The translation of Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, which Apostolidès began the day after he read it in the Washington Post, was the first step in a longer journey. The next began with a secret.

“In the past, I was in a certain way tied to a secret that I think has no more value,” he explained. Shortly after the arrest, Apostolidès was approached by Kaczynski’s team of lawyers, who said they were concerned for the prisoner’s sanity and well-being in prison.

The Unabomber ... in Berkeley days

“They thought I would be a perfect penpal,” he said. Apostolidès was told to keep the correspondence secret even from his family. Thus began a brief, lopsided correspondence screened by Kaczynski’s lawyers and the FBI.

The brief correspondence did not go smoothly: “He did not want to talk to me; he wanted to preach. I detest that,” he said. “On one side he was scolding me, on the other side complimenting me.”

In retrospect, Apostolidès thinks the lawyers wanted him to help certify Kaczynski was insane. Yet, he said, “I’m convinced he has neurotic problems – but no more than anyone else. He has to be judged on his ideas and his deeds.” Our insistence on his insanity may be a way to avoid grappling with that, he said.

In an interview, Apostolidès leaned forward across the desk in his campus office and his voice dropped: “This will shock you. He’s a very nice guy, sweet, open-minded. And I know he has blood on his hands. You cannot be all bad – even if you kill, even Hitler.”

We would like our villains to be 100 percent evil, psychotic Snidely Whiplashes counting money in the backroom. (Look at the outcry at the portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall.) We are uncomfortable when they look even a little bit like us, but such ambiguity is the stuff of life, said Apostolidès.

The most obvious ambiguity may be centered within Apostolidès himself. He admits he has a longstanding interest in avant-garde ideas – but he writes about radical thoughts from the safe perch of a university professorship and his comfortable home on the Stanford campus. In short, as a part of the petite bourgeoisie Kaczynski despises.

Kaczynski’s manifesto argues that the leftist liberals who present themselves as rebels are, in fact, obedient servants of the dominant society – a symptom of “oversocialization.” He singles out “university intellectuals” as prime examples.

Apostolidès, who says he wouldn’t kill a fly, finds the criticism “absolutely appropriate.”

Right again, René

We have our little boxes for people.  “Christian fundamentalist” – although Breivik insists in his own screed that he’s not religious (“Although I am not a religious person myself, I am usually in favor of a revitalization of Christianity in Europe” p. 676) .  “Psychopath,” though he has no criminal record, and his former stepmother describes him as a nice guy.

Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit.  Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit.  As Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas.

A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one.  Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity.  It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence.  Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.

Postscript on 7/27: Thanks to Morgan Meis of 3quarksdaily for the mention today.

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9 Responses to “Anders Behring Breivik: Maybe he’s not insane”

  1. Ryan Says:

    Is there a reason why you don’t consider Anders Breivik a terrorist? It has sort of come to my attention that in all of the excitement of the initial moments of Breivik’s activities, when nobody knew what had actually happened, that perpetrator was portrayed as being a potential “terrorist” with ties to Islamic extremists. I will give an example. In the hours after the events in Oslo of the Canadian newspaper I was reading (I’m a Canadian) was quick to point out that Norway has a few extremist clerics residing in it, bandying about the term “terrorism” and making it appear as though this were an Islamic terrorist.

    It seems as though since the discovery that Breivik is a Norwegian man of the far right, and an extreme nationalist, he has eluded the “little box” of terrorist. Is there a reason for this? Even you seem to be uncomfortable applying this title. I would be interested to know your reasons for this.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Not at all uncomfortable with it. He is a terrorist.

  3. Doog Says:

    Isn’t the point under review that “terrorist” /= “insane”, although when one of our guys does it, he has to be designated a lone nut, falling as far from the mainstem tree as preposterously plausible?

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’m not sure who “our guys” are, but my point is that all of these labels – including “terrorist,” “lone nut,” etc. – seem preposterously unequal to the task of explaining who these people are, and why they are doing what they are doing.

  5. Maeve Says:

    “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Chesterton

  6. test Says:

    […] […]

  7. John Lawler Says:

    It appears he appeals to our own crazies:

  8. Kawa Says:


    […]Anders Behring Breivik: Maybe he’s not insane | The Book Haven[…]…

  9. Maria Says:

    This is in no way a justification for murdering innocent children by the way. Before anybody decides to get all hysterical. It is terrible and such things should be avoided in the future , that’s my point.