The Breivik Trial: Is Norway’s Mass Murderer Really Insane?

Prosecutors in the case of Anders Breivik, the man responsible for one of the worst massacres in Norwegian history, asked he be consigned to psychiatric care rather than prison. But the debate over Breivik's sanity will only grow.

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Heiko Junge / AFP / Getty Images

Anders Behring Breivik looks on during his trial in Oslo on June 14, 2012 as psychiatrists Synne Soerheim, right, and Torgeir Husby defend their report.

Update: The prosecution on Thursday asked the court to consider Anders Breivik insane and commit him to psychiatric care.

Anders Behring Breivik is not standing trial alone in Oslo. Psychiatry is being judged as well. With Mr Breivik’s guilt not in doubt, his sanity has become the critical issue. If he is considered sane, the court’s five judges will sentence him to 21 years in prison (though he can be detained indefinitely if he is still considered dangerous). If insane, he will be committed to an institution. The court is dealing with two psychiatric reports: one says he is sane; the other that he is not. Now, just days before the end of the 10-week trial, the authors of each report are standing firm, using identical evidence, or cherry picking alternative accounts of Breivik’s behavior, to stand by their contradictory conclusions.

It is public scandal in Norway—and began inauspiciously with how some details made their way into the press. On the stand in the Oslo court, Dr. Tarjei Rygnestad, the head of the Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine blinked hard, glanced around and, unasked, started explaining how the details from a December meeting of the board’s psychiatric group was leaked to the public broadcaster, NRK. Rygnestad explained he had called cops after the revelations hit the media. He told them he thought the office had been bugged. After examining the phone records of each person in the room, cops discovered the source of the leak was Rygnestad himself. At the start of the meeting he had accidentally answered a call from an NRK journalist, then placed his phone on the desk and failed to hang up for 53 minutes while the lucky reporter listened in and took notes.

Rygnestad’s group had been deciding whether a court-ordered psychiatric report, diagnosing the “insane” gunman with paranoid schizophrenia, was acceptably robust. Their unanimous assent had led to recriminations and to a second court ordered report which concluded in April that Breivik was, in fact, sane.

(PHOTOS: Explosion and Shooting Rock Norway)

The authors of the first report, Synne Sorheim and Torgeir Husby, saw Breivik’s obsessive playing of the online computer game, World of Warcraft, from 2006 as evidence of the withdrawal which often precipitates psychosis. The authors of the second report, Terje Torrissen and Agnar Aspaas, said, in fact, during his 16-hours-a-day playing habit, Breivik had replaced one set of physical friends with another set of equally valid online chums.

The years-long obsessive planning of the bomb and shooting attacks from 2009 was regarded by the first team as psychotic tunnel vision. The second team reckoned this meticulousness was almost implausible in someone with schizophrenia – indeed it was evidence of high functionality. Breivik, who wants to be found sane, likes this second assessment – though this would hardly surprise Torrissen and Aspaas. They diagnosed the killer with Narcissistic personality disorder. They also say he has anti-social personality disorder, though neither of these would absolve the killer of criminal responsibility.

How could this be? Personality disorders should be constant from childhood. Yet despite an early brush with child psychiatry, which found symptoms of psychopathology in the four year old Anders, Husby and Sorheim read evidence to the court from childhood friends and family which suggested Breivik had subsequently grown into an ordinary adolescent and adult–his insanity only emerging in his late 20s. For their part, Torrissen and Aspaas read evidence from the same friends suggesting, in fact, there were always signs of Narcissism and described minor scrapes with the law in his teens as evidence that he was always anti-social — but not insane.

(PHOTOS: Anders Behring Breivik, the Extremist Behind Norway’s Tragedy)

At the core of the Husby and Sorheim diagnosis is the belief that Breivik suffered a psychotic breakdown in 2006, and began to display the symptoms which they would later use to identify paranoid schizophrenia. These were an emotional flattening, delusions, and the use of neologisms to help describe his delusional manifestations. In the 1,500 page manifesto Breivik emailed to 8,000 on the morning of the attacks last July, he describes at length a pan-European network of militant nationalists called the Knights Templar, poised to carry out attacks in the name of European purity. The manifesto describes a solemn founding meeting in London in 2002. It describes chivalric customs and features photographs of Breivik in uniforms he made for himself. Critically, for the authors of the first report, it also describes how the organization empowers its “commanders” to identify and execute traitors. This, they say, is the core of the killer’s psychotic delusion.

(READ: Anders Breivik and the Knights Templar.)

They also argue that their assessment, carried out a month after the rampage, is more valid because it happened nearer the time of the attacks. It is true that, after being given access to their report last December, and the media coverage that surrounded it, Breivik began to backtrack on the rhetoric. The claim that he might one day become the regent of Norway or Europe, for example, was disavowed.

However, the second team of Torrissen and Aspaas concluded that Breivik’s ability to modify his behavior is evidence that he is not suffering a delusion. They added that the delay gave the police more time to collect evidence, and the psychiatrists themselves more time to do their research.

(MORE: ‘Anders Breivik Is Not Crazy’ — the Surprise Defense of Norway’s Mass Killer)

Both teams spent two days giving evidence, many hours of which were given over to pointing out such shortfalls in their rivals’ approaches. Husby kicked off his own testimony by complaining about the many months of character assassination he and his partner had suffered at the hands of the media and other psychiatrists making worthless “remote diagnoses.” His professional colleagues did not disappoint.

A string of them came to give evidence, happily dragging their profession through the mud. They  rubbished the conclusions while still finding time to come up with their own speculations. Apart from the findings of that first report, the court has now heard at least eight other possible diagnoses of  Breivik’s peculiarities, including Asperger’s syndrome, psychotic personality disorder, gaming addiction and Tourette’s. Even so, most agreed on one thing: It was certainly not schizophrenia.

The judges will come to a conclusion about Breivik. But psychiatry is looking pretty shabby after these proceedings.

MORE: Don’t Get Distracted By Anders Breivik’s Oddities

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