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Unraveling the Mystery of Murderous Minds

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Brian Carney has this article in the WSJ with the above title, subtitled, "Prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple asks why we feel compelled to understand monsters like Anders Breivik, but no need to explain others' righteous behavior."  The whole article is well worth reading, but here is an excerpt (emphasis added):

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."

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.

3 Comments

One of the many things that really sucks about this: this SOB, while watching TV or whatever gets to sit back and enjoy all the pain he caused. The SOB.

The article highlighted in this post addresses a question that has always bothered me: Why is it that most people feel the need to provide rational reasons for behavior that is so horrific that it defies understanding? The fact that Breivik will apparently claim insanity plays right into this problem; there are plenty of people who will buy the argument that he must be insane because only an insane person could do what he did. Yet in reality, Breivik is so far from the legal definition of insanity it's laughable. He planned his crimes at least a year in advance. Everything he did shows an extraordinary amount of rational thought and planning, and all of his behavior was goal-directed and methodical. He obviously knew all too well what he was doing, and recognized that society views it as wrong, yet he chose to do it anyway to further his own agenda -- just like any other terrorist. Indeed, if Breivik is insane, so is every terrorist -- a premise I suspect no one would buy.

All of this reminds me of the conversation I had once with a surviving family member of several murder victims who were killed by a single perpetrator. The survivor asked me why I thought someone would do such a thing. The only answer I could give was simply that there are evil people in the world, and sometimes one of those people decides to do evil things.

Not sure why you take Doctor Dalrymple seriously on this issue. He is a psychiatrist. No profession has done more to remove the issue of personal responsibility from the legal system than psychiatry. You may want to research his professional history. He was an NHS psychiatrist, working in a state hospital. Prison psychiatry was a small part of his job.

Yes, you're right: there are people in the world who are just plain evil. Why should the state pay for pseudo-doctors like Dalrymple to treat them for illnesses they don't even believe in?

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