Marina Cantacuzino: Let's leave 'evil' out of the Anders Breivik case


Whatever the verdict eventually delivered in Oslo District Court, Anders Breivik is likely to remain, like most people who perpetrate extreme acts of human cruelty, convinced that he is on the side of good rather than evil.

The interpretation of evil has not been under deliberation in the Norwegian courts, only the question of his sanity – in other words, whether at the time of the attacks the accused was experiencing a psychotic state of mind, and, therefore, unable to differentiate between right and wrong.

The specious justification made by Breivik, whose trial ended yesterday, that "goodness not evil" caused him to murder 77 Norwegians, is the justification any killer will make for destroying their enemy. He has worn responsibility like a badge of honour and even declared: "I would have done it again."

Some months after I founded the Forgiveness Project in 2004, I came across a quote by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which summed up perfectly the ethos at the heart of everything I was trying to do. It is from The Gulag Archipelago in which he gives an explanation for why most of us reject responsibility for humanity's most heinous crimes. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Even before I founded the Forgiveness Project – which shares stories of forgiveness from victims and perpetrators around the globe – I believed the line dividing good from bad or right-doing from wrong-doing was much thinner than most people are prepared to accept. If we truly believed our neighbours were imminently about to kill or maim us, it is very likely that most of us would be capable of committing extreme acts of violence. As Dr Gwen Adshead, consultant psychotherapist at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital, has said, "We all have the capacity to get into an evil state of mind."

The word "evil" is an unflinching moral absolute, used to describe human behaviour so brutal and terrifying as to be incomprehensible. Most commonly used by judges and journalists, it is shorthand for saying that the psychotics and sociopaths among us are beyond redemption or understanding. It stops the conversation dead because it doesn't allow for the question – why? In many ways, it is a cop-out, because it is so much easier to talk of evil than empathy.

But the word is useful nonetheless to describe the kind of horrors that give us nightmares – the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, the abduction and murder of James Bulger by two young boys, the kidnap and brutal torture of at least 10 young women by Fred and Rosemary West, and more recently the chilling slaughter of 77 people last summer by far-right extremist Anders Breivik.

Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of Zero Degrees of Empathy and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, considers that "evil" indicates a radical lack of empathy, which can be traced in the brain. But biology doesn't give us the full picture either. Throw into the mix a childhood of maltreatment or prevailing political ideologies which brainwash, and just about anyone, it seems, has the capacity to get into an "evil" frame of mind. Regarding Breivik's most lethal of plans to rid Norway of multiculturalism, there may be no single answer. Perhaps in the way that a perfect storm is a confluence of events that drastically aggravates a situation in nature, the same can happen with the human psyche.

Dehumanising the victim is the first step to turning ruthless. One example among many comes from the extraordinary interviews with SS commandant Franz Stangl by Gitta Sereny, who died last week. Stangl refers to his victims as cargo, not as human beings, and when Sereny asks him whether seeing children lined up for the gas chambers made him think of his own children, he replies: "I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass... they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips..."

During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats in the same way that Hutus in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Anders Breivik admitted using technical "de-emotionalised" language in order to keep his composure and carry out the executions. "You have to choose tactics and strategies to dehumanise... the enemy," he declared during his trial.

Dr Adshead's experience is that dehumanisation is a key part of the a chain of events that leads to acts that we label as "evil". However, her clinical experience is that, with the right treatment, rehabilitation is possible. Evil is not a word that is used by forensic psychiatrists or psychotherapists; it is a "word of power" that condemns and excludes. It seems that humanising evil is the only way to try to understand this "word of power" because evil, according to Dr Adshead, is a "distinctly human process".

Any of us who attempt to understand evil may be accused, as indeed Gitta Sereny was, of forgiving evil. However, the struggle is not with forgiving but with empathising while maintaining moral integrity. Stephen Cherry, in his fascinating book Healing Agony (Re-Imagining Forgiveness), gets to the heart of the matter when he concludes: "In order to empathise with the cruel and heartless you have to imagine being cruel and heartless yourself." To realise that evil isn't so different from us can be a terrifying place to visit. However, since identification and empathy are also given to the victims, therein lies the restorative process.

The Forgiveness Project 2012 Annual Lecture will be delivered by Dr Gwen Adshead at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on Tuesday 3 July. Tickets £10 from

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