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Anders Breivik: a criminal mind?

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In order Anders Behring Breivik finally receives a verdict: he was sentenced to 21 years of “preventive detention” for the massacre carried out one year ago in Norway.

On the 22nd of July 2011 Breivik detonated a bomb in central Oslo killing eight people and a few hours later he went to the island of Utoya where he embarked on a shooting rampage against a group of young people who were participating in the Labor Part rally and killed 69 of them. Breivik was quite lucid in supporting the reasons for his crimes, considering them as necessary acts to defend the state against the Muslim invasion, marxism and multiculturalism. This cold-blooded explanation given by Breivik    from the beginning to the end of the court hearing, led experts to believe that the the killer is mentally ill. The apparent lack of any feelings or remorse, the all-encompassing search to achieve a goal   that had been prepared for a long time and the graveness of his actions suggested a severe case of psychopathy. Correctly establishing his state of mind, however, proved to be very difficult. Breivik, who was analyzed by a team of experts, was initially considered to be schizophrenic and suffering from psychosis. After more detailed investigations and regular meetings with the killer a different team of psychiatrists did not find any signs of   mental illnesses.

Breivik, on the other hand, has always declared to be in full possession of his mental faculties. This is not only as a result of his allegiance to his ideology, which a declaration of mental instability would have inevitably diminished, but also in light how the Norwegian penal system is structured. As was previously highlighted in recent months, the Norwegian penal code, surprisingly, foresees a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison. A prison that has all the comforts (the prison in question is Ila, an ex Nazi prison camp, which nowadays is considered an avant-garde prison complete with computers and television for the inmates). If however Breivik was found to be mentally ill, he would have risked being sentenced to life confinement in a psychiatric hospital and as a result he would have appealed the sentence.

Many considerations can be made, including social and political, when   assessing the sentence he received. The 21 years of preventive detention inflicted, which could be prolonged at the end of his sentence   if he is still considered a danger to society, was based on the fact that the judges have considered Breivik fully aware of what he had done, with intent and will, despite having a "personality disorder" that led him
to his political intentions and destabilization of society. Many, however, still have considerable doubts regarding Breivik’s psychopathy. Can any person that is completely emotionally detached with respect to his actions, that pursues a goal regardless of the consequences, that does not repent, be rehabilitated? How should be treated by the law? A recent study by the University of Utah on a sample of American courts and published in Science a few days ago, shows how judges, when faced with scientific explanations of the defendants’ psychopathy, tend to reduce the punishment. The reason for this is that the judges are led to think that the criminal was not fully conscious when the decision to carry out the crime was made. However when the criminal’s psychopathy condition   is not supported by detailed information, the punishment is increased, thus emphasizing that these individuals can be a danger to society.

In the not too distant future, the possibility of investigating the mechanisms and morphology of the brain of the alleged psychopaths, with the aid neuroscientific techniques, is envisaged. Many studies are already under way in this direction and the difficulty of recognizing such illnesses with traditional methodologies will no doubt lead to new technologies being welcomed by both the scientific and legal communities. The question "how to deal with these people", however, still remains very complex. In the Corriere della Sera, Umberto Veronesi argues in favor of a prison sentence which is limited over the years in order to comply with our constitutional principle of rehabilitating the offender (Article 27). This train of thought also appears to be accepted by science: the latest research shows that the brain is plastic in the sense that the synapses are renewed over time and brain stem cells allow renewal of our brain. After 21 years in prison, therefore, Breivik’s brain will no longer be similar to his present brain and a rehabilitation program may thus have a beneficial effect.

The debate is still open but now it not only involves legal experts but also scientists and as brain research advances scientists will become increasingly sought after.


Further reading:

L. G. Aspinwall, T. R. Brown, J. Tabery. The Double-Edged Sword: Does Biomechanism Increase or Decrease Judges' Sentencing of Psychopaths? Science, 2012; 337 (6096): 846 DOI: 10.1126/science.1219569

P. Beaumont, Anders Behring Breivik: profile of a mass murderer 

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