Tuesday 26 July 2011

A Difficult Subject

The Norwegian Church in Cardiff this week

This morning on Radio 4 John Humphrys chaired a short debate about whether Anders Breivik, the self-confessed Norwegian homicide, was suffering from mental illness or acting rationally from extreme political convictions.

Of course this makes for uncomfortable listening but I do think it is important to consider what is undoubtedly being discussed informally across the world. People with a serious mental illness and those who support them need to join in the discussion carefully in order to avoid misunderstanding and the risk of increasing stigma.

Nobody knows whether Breivik is mentally ill at this stage (as I write his lawyer has just claimed that he "probably" is) but that will not stop the discussion nor will it diminish the confusion which affects many people about the different reasons why people act violently.

My contribution to this discussion is to challenge the widely-expressed view of pundits, politicians, and the public that it is “impossible to understand” why people act in this way. In fact, if people stop to think about it, it is possible to analyse rationally why people act violently.

Most people believe that there are circumstances which justify homicide – for example in just wars, under severe political oppression, or in self-defence. There are few true pacifists among us.

We know that political extremists who commit homicides typically feel justified by reference to some extreme peril which they believe faces “their people”, country, religion, or culture. This is usually unjustifiable but not incomprehensible because we can readily point to political homicides which we would justify. For example, many of the public would justify the actions of underground political cells (some enjoying little public support at the time) which violently attacked occupying Axis personnel in war-time Europe or the minority political establishment in pre-liberation South Africa. What we have to do is to differentiate the causes espoused by the French Resistance and the ANC from those of al Qaeda and those expressed in Breivik’s website. That is something we are all capable of doing; it is not mysterious and we do understand the difference.

I would argue that the motivations behind most of the small numbers of homicides committed by people with serious mental illness are also comprehensible.

A very few people by reason of psychosis have delusions which many of the public would, if they experienced them, agree might appear as a justification for homicide. Examples would be: paranoid delusions leading a person to believe that somebody else was about to kill them, leading to a homicide "justified" through self-defence; or delusions leading a person to believe that another person or persons had violent and evil intentions for all humankind and therefore, again, that homicide would be “justified” for the greater good. These and similar delusions are quite common in the very uncommon circumstances of homicides by people with a serious mental illness.

So how does understanding the reasons for these different sorts of homicide affect how we should respond to them?

In the case of political extremism society is entitled to pursue, convict, and punish humanely those who commit unjustifiable homicides even if the perpetrators believe they were right in what they did. Their wrong political judgement is not a reason for clemency.

In cases where people are led by their psychotic delusions to believe that a homicide is justified society is fully entitled to protect itself and so restrict the freedom of those people as long as they pose a real threat. However, logically there should also surely be a significant degree of compassion on the basis of “There but for the grace of God”. Severe mental illness can affect any of us – or our nearest and dearest – and none of us can be sure how we would act in extreme psychosis.

In reality the "impossible to understand" line is defensive because deep down we fear comparison of those who act violently with our own experience of anger, delusion, disproportionate responses to events, etc. But we would do better to acknowledge that we all have the potential for violence and so we can often understand very well (not necessarily the same thing as "sympathise with") those who act violently. Through that acknowledgement we could distinguish more clearly between those who act violently for political reasons and those who do so by reason of their mental illness - and thereby we could respond more appropriately and effectively to both.