Paul Vallely: Breivik was narcissistic and racist... but sane

There was something unutterably banal about the defendant's chubby face and silly pencil beard

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So he was bad, not mad. It took an Oslo court 10 weeks to decide that the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is sane and sentence him to 21 years in jail. Had he been declared insane he would have been committed to a secure mental institution for just as long. But the verdict has immense significance for reasons which are rooted deep in the human psyche.

The killer himself was anxious to be declared of sound mind. Such a judgment, he felt, would validate his view of himself as a political warrior in a latter-day European crusade against Islam. An insanity ruling, he said, would be "worse than death". Some might have thought that a good enough reason to return such a verdict. But most Norwegians wanted his sanity declared too, not just because of the lucidity his testimony – and his boast that his well-planned crimes were the most "spectacular" committed by a nationalist militant since the Second World War – but also because they needed to be able to assign moral culpability for such terrible acts. Someone had to be blamed, and punished.

But there is a corpse-soaked no-man's-land between badness and madness. That was clear from the ambiguity of one of the witnesses produced by the defence as they sought to prove Breivik's sanity. The sociologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen said that Breivik was a fantasist with a home-made uniform who couldn't tell the difference between reality and his computer games. Yet a lot of his world view is fairly widely shared by those "who feel that globalisation is not going their way, that their country is being invaded by foreign aliens, that Muslims can never be good democrats, and that we are being ruled by spineless multiculturalists who don't see the dangers of Islam". That made him, for all his fastidious narcissism and crazy notions of racial purity, sane.

Evil wears many masks. Our favourite is the one which is cruel, savage, sadistic. It speaks of something supernatural and demonic and has about it a hypnotic fascination which makes movie directors often imply there is something glamorous about evil. Breivik gives the lie to that. So did the terrible incident in 2004 when a group of Chechen terrorists took a Russian school at Beslan hostage. It ended in a shoot-out in which more than 300 people died, 186 of them children. One 10‑year-old boy was bayoneted to death for asking for water. Beslan illustrated the chaos of the margins between badness and madness when one of the hostage-takers looked into the eyes of another 10-year-old and told him: "The Russians killed 20 of my children and now I'm going to kill you." Only crazed logic could lead a man into that twisted sense of justice.

It was Hannah Arendt who famously labelled the face of evil at the opposite extremity. There was no satanic greatness about Adolf Eichmann at the Nazi's war crimes trial in Israel in 1961. He was a man of impeccable managerial rationality in charge of organising the trains that took millions to Hitler's death camps. But when viewers from across the globe tuned in to watch the trial they did not see a monster but a nondescript man who kept insisting he was only "following orders".

So a person can commit the most evil deeds without having a heart of darkness. Eichmann declared at his trial that he had lived his life according to a Kantian definition of duty, and indeed came up with a passable definition of the Kantian categorical imperative. But he saw his overriding duty as obeying the will of the Führer and thus rationalised evil into good. Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to emphasise that the chief architect of the Holocaust was just an ordinary little man doing his job like the rest of us. There was something unutterably banal about Anders Breivik with his chubby face and silly pencil beard.

The Israeli journalist Amos Elon had an interesting gloss on Arendt. "Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet," he wrote. "It can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world."

Perhaps the opposite of good is not evil but meaninglessness. Maybe bad stuff just happens and we then impose meaning and shape where none exists. A reporter on the radio on Friday voiced a piece from Utoeya, the island where Breivik shot dead 77 young people. With birds singing in the background the BBC man began: "Despite the beauty and the calm, you feel the evil that took place here..." But had the evil taken up residence in the reporter's mind rather than on the pine-clad island?

Anders Breivik is more than just a bad man. He is, whether we like to admit it or not, a product of the society that nurtured him and in which many share his views. He shows that terror comes from within as well as without. Breivik knew what he was doing. He planned with thought and care. That was why in legal terms he was not mad, though it might have been more comfortable for us if he were. But morality and psychiatry do not speak the same language. And they have not found a way to draw clear distinctions on how we sometimes manage to distance ourselves from our own humanity.

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