Unraveling the Mystery of Murderous Minds

BRIAN CARNEY

Theodore Dalrymple worked as a prison doctor and psychiatrist in Britain for 15 years. He's known serial killers, petty thieves and everything in between. As he puts it, with a mischievous grin, "I've probably spent more time in prison than the average murderer."

Theodore Dalyrmple

It's a beautiful summer day in the south of France, and Dr. Dalrymple is holding forth on what we can – and can't – know about the mind of a mass murderer like the Oslo shooter, Anders Behring Breivik. "I don't think we'll ever understand" what makes a person capable of this kind of premeditated murder, Dr. Dalrymple tells me over lunch. What's more, he says, "we don't even know what it is to understand. At what point do you say, 'Aha! Now I understand!'" he asks.

Dr. Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, author of more than a dozen books of scathing social commentary on everything from crime to travel to, most recently, what he calls "the toxic cult of sentimentality" in modern society. In his writing and in conversation, he returns frequently to the criminals he's known and treated.

Your garden-variety convicts, he contends, are much simpler subjects than a man like Breivik. To ask them why they steal, he says, "is like asking you why you have lunch." They want something, so they take it. "And since in Britain," he adds with a smirk, "the state does very little to discourage [thieves]," or to incarcerate them when they are caught, "the question is not why there are so many burglars, but why there are so few."

A Breivik is a deeper mystery. Of him, "you can say, 'This man is highly narcissistic, paranoid and grandiose,'" and this may lead you to seek reasons for that in his past – "his father disappeared at the age of 15 and so on and so forth." But uncovering such facts doesn't solve the mystery because "whatever you find, you would also find among hundreds or thousands or even millions of people who didn't do what he did." There is, he says, "always a gap between what is to be explained and your alleged explanation. So there's always a mystery, and I think that's going to remain."

Even so, we find irresistible the urge to understand an atrocity like Breivik's, even as we are repulsed by it. When asked whether we hope thereby to understand something about ourselves, the former prison doctor offers an arch denial: "Well, he doesn't tell me much about me." And then, with a morbid chuckle and wary look – "I can't say for you," before adding: "I suppose the only thing one can say is that he tells us about the range of human possibility. But we knew that already."


The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects – one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don't feel about people's good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, "because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed," by which he means that "we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural."

For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.

"Most people," Dr. Dalrymple says, "now have a belief in the inner core of themselves as being good. So that whatever they've done, they'll say, 'That's not the real me.'" He recalls an inmate he once encountered: "I remember one particular chap who'd thrown ammonia at his girlfriend's face because he was jealous. He denied he'd done it. And the evidence was overwhelming that he had done it. So I said, 'Why did you say you didn't do it?'"

For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature.

He delivers the convict's response in a convincing working-class English accent quite different from his own, more refined, speech: "Well, I'm not like that," the man told him. "I don't do them things." Dr. Dalrymple explains that "for him, his core was more real than what he'd actually done." It turned out that the man had been to prison before – "and it was for throwing acid in his girlfriend's face."

Dr. Dalrymple suggests that a similar self-detachment could have been at work in the mind of Anders Breivik. As the world now knows, courtesy of his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik "did actually have, perverse as it was, a political purpose." He had a worldview and a vision, however deranged, of what was needed to achieve it. And, says Dr. Dalrymple, "I assume that when he was shooting all those people, what was in his mind was the higher good that he thought he was doing. And that was more real to him than the horror that he was creating around him."

In itself, having a worldview that shapes our attention, informs even what we believe to be real, is perfectly normal. It may even be essential. "After all," Dr. Dalrymple says, "having a very consistent worldview, particularly if it gives you a transcendent purpose, answers the most difficult question: What is the purpose of life?"

Having a purpose is usually a good thing. "One of the problems of our society," Dr. Dalrymple says, "is that many people don't have a transcendent purpose. Now it can come from various things. It can come from religion of course. But religion in Europe is dead."

Dr. Dalrymple argues that the welfare state, Europe's form of civic religion, deprives its citizens even of the "struggle for existence" as a possible purpose in life. One alternative, then, is "transcendent political purpose – and that's where what [Breivik's] done comes in." Such a political purpose doesn't lead inexorably to fanaticism, violence and murder. "But my guess," Dr. Dalrymple offers, "is that this man, who was extremely ambitious, didn't have the talent" to realize his ambitions, whether in politics or other fields. "So while he's intelligent he didn't have that ability or that determination to mark himself out in a way that might be more – constructive, shall we say."

Some have sought to link Breivik's violence to his political thinking. The New York Times ran a story Monday about Breivik's fondness for certain American anti-Islamist blogs. And a parade of politicians on the European right have felt compelled to step forward and condemn Breivik's killing spree – as if afraid that silence might somehow imply sympathy. Dr. Dalrymple himself, he says, is quoted indirectly "several times" in Breivik's manifesto, "and that," he says, "is slightly anxiety-provoking." In the first place, it's never pleasant to find yourself in the company, however unwillingly or unwittingly, of a man like Breivik.


He has another worry, "that what he's done will be taken as a reason to close down all kinds of debate," or to delegitimize the views of anyone who, as Dr. Dalrymple puts it, "question[s] anything that the current prime minister of Norway says or believes."

"So actually there's a potentially extremely totalitarian or at least authoritarian aspect to this drive to understand what essentially is not finally understandable."

"Here is a man," Dr. Dalrymple says, "behaving like this and quoting all kinds of people, some of whom I admire or agree with." But to suggest that the views of those thinkers (including himself) somehow contributed to the killing in Oslo, he argues, makes no sense. "It's like somebody saying that if you believe, for example, that bankers were irresponsible during the [2008 global financial] crisis, you are leading inexorably to the killing of three bankers in the bank in Athens," as happened during one of the recent anti-austerity protests there.

Another modern impulse in trying to understand men like Breivik is what Dr. Dalrymple calls "a kind of neuroscientific investigation combined with Darwinism, which tries to persuade us that we understand something that perhaps Shakespeare didn't understand" about human nature. "And of course," he allows, "there are things we understand that we didn't understand in Shakespeare's time. But the idea that we have finally plucked out the heart of the mystery of existence is drivel."

He notes that so far at least, the explanatory power of sociobiology combined with neuroscience is entirely "retrospective." Experts can draw correlations between this and that, "but they can't even tell you what's going to happen on the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow. So, there's a feeling that we have finally achieved some kind of understanding that our poor benighted ancestors didn't have. But this is nonsense." Human action remains mysterious, and what's more, "it's dangerous to think we do have that kind of understanding," because in the worst case, it could lead to a kind of scientific dictatorship.

"Supposing," he says of Breivik, "you examine him and you come to the conclusion that this, that and the other factor went to create the situation. You wouldn't have any more than a statistical generality." But if that statistical correlation could be verified, could it lead to "locking up people before they've done anything"?

This is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem, according to Dr. Dalrymple. At one point, "the British government . . . wanted doctors to speculate on what people might do" and to offer law enforcement their views about who was likely to become dangerous. But human knowledge, and even more so human judgment, being fallible, "any factor you find that makes them likely to become dangerous isn't going to be 100%. It's unlikely to be even 20%. So in order to prevent one incident, you'd probably have to lock up hundreds of people.

"So actually there's a potentially extremely totalitarian or at least authoritarian aspect to this drive to understand what essentially is not finally understandable."

There would also be a human cost to achieving that kind of understanding. Perfect understanding, if it could be attained, would allow perfect manipulation of others – we could "play on each other like a pipe," Dr. Dalrymple says, echoing Hamlet's accusation toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

And that would not be a change for the better. What's more, if we understood each other perfectly, "we'd know exactly what each other are thinking – and that would be horrific," he insists. "At least if my thoughts are anything to go by."

Dr. Dalrymple has a point. And if the deepest thoughts of even our friends and acquaintances would be a horror, we should be grateful that there are gaps in our understanding of an Anders Breivik. Some gaps, we don't really want to fill.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brian Carney. "Unraveling the Mystery of Murderous Minds." The Wall Street Journal (July 30, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

 
Brian Carney is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe and the coauthor of Freedom, Inc. (Crown Business, 2009).

Copyright © 2011 Wall Street Journal




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