Jacob Sullum

Last Friday, upon receiving the maximum possible penalty for murdering 77 people in and near Oslo, Norway, a year ago, Anders Behring Breivik smiled. The prison sentence -- 21 years initially, but indefinitely extendable for as long as Breivik is deemed a threat -- meant a five-judge panel had rejected the prosecution's argument that the self-proclaimed anti-Islamic militant was insane when he committed his bloody crimes.

Since Breivik feared such a judgment would hurt his political cause, the verdict was, in that sense, a victory for him. But it was also a victory for individual responsibility and the rule of law, both of which are undermined by pseudomedical pronouncements that treat extreme ideas as symptoms of mental illness.

On July 22, 2011, Breivik set off a car bomb near government offices in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. He then proceeded to the island of Utoya, about 19 miles away, where he shot 100 people, 67 fatally, at a summer youth camp for aspiring politicians sponsored by the governing Labor Party. Two others died by falling or drowning while trying to escape. Most of the victims were teenagers.

In "A European Declaration of Independence," a 1,500-page manifesto he posted online shortly before his murder spree, Breivik explained his motivation: He was seeking to protect Norway from "Islamic colonization" by attacking the agents of "multiculturalism." During his trial, he identified himself as "a member of the Norwegian resistance movement," called his violence "the most spectacular sophisticated political act in Europe since the Second World War" and regretted that he had not killed more people.

"I did this out of goodness, not evil," Breivik said. "I acted in self-defense on behalf of my people, my city, my country." He urged the court not to misconstrue his deliberate actions as the involuntary product of a diseased brain. "When you see something too extreme," he said, "you might think it is irrational and insane. But you must separate political extremism from insanity."

That distinction was lost on the two court-appointed psychiatrists who declared that Breivik's crimes were driven not by ideology but by psychotic delusions, the result of untreated paranoid schizophrenia. Their report, released last November, provoked so much criticism that the court appointed two more psychiatrists, who last April rejected their colleagues' diagnosis, concluding that Breivik is and was sane.

"Psychiatry is not an exact science by any means," BBC News observed at the time. In light of such diametrically opposed conclusions based on the same evidence, one might wonder whether it qualifies as a science at all.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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