Unraveling the Mind of Anders Breivik: How do we Understand the Utoya Killer?

We want to believe he is a monster.

When a 32 year old man sets off a car bomb and kills 8, travels to an island dressed as a police officer and methodically shoots 69 people (mostly teenagers) at a Norwegian Labor Party summer camp, and then quietly raises his arms above his head and states “I have finished” when the real police finally arrive, we want to feel like we cannot relate to him at all. We need to think that we could never write 1,500 page manifestos that detail the plans of a horrific slaughter. We need to dissect the identity and mind of this man and find the holes that don’t exist in our lives.

In the ongoing trial of Anders Breivik, questions of insanity and logic are constant. Like the case of Pierre Riviere, we are forced to contemplate what responsibility really means. As the above youtube video explores, Breivik has been painted by the media as both a madman and a perfectly sane yet dangerous religious extremist.

The stories of teen survivors (like the tales of the Villagers in the case of Pierre Riviere) pull at our heart strings. They  make us see a cold-blooded killer who looks his victims in the eye and feels nothing. One survivor who spoke to reporters after watching Breivik in court and believed that no one else could see the world the way he did. We think there is no way he can be “normal.”

And yet, this man was meticulous. He was planned. He built a facebook page (on which he had no friends,) wrote in a diary, and developed an extreme manifesto with reasoning for his actions (none of which he saw as crime.) Like the story of Pierre, the weeks following his horrible act brought on descriptions of “loneliness” and “isolation.” He believed himself a matyr for a Christian Europe under attack by multiculturalism. He started his own war. He made his own meaning by becoming a leader of a “communist resistance.” For these reasons, he believed his actions were to be rewarded–just as Pierre Riviere believed he would eventually be recognized for saving the happiness of his father.

Informally diagnosed by psychoanalyst Darian Leader as a paranoiac, Breivik walks a fine line between sanity and sickness. According to Leader, “for the paranoiac, self and other are rigidly separated: the other is outside. And hence the paranoiac subject is always innocent: it’s the other’s fault.” A form of paranoia like that Breivik suffers from involves a system of explanatory beliefs about where a person fits into the world. For Breivik, this meant filling a place as a “perfect knight battling Islam.” The paranoiac is always able to shift blame for his or her actions to an external and malignant cause. This idea might be paralleled in the case of Pierre Riviere- a man who claimed his actions were a result of his mother’s wicked and evil ways.

Leader also points out that paranoiacs also identify and become obsessed with malignancies that affect the world– i.e. disease, environmental issues etc. Paranoiacs will spend their lives trying to remove this world problem. Looking at things this way, we might see how extreme paranoia could be beneficial– leading to a cure for cancer or solutions to climate change. This is hopeful, but also terrifying. What do we do when we can’t determine who will be a positive paranoiac or a monstrous one? What happens when we are unable to categorize?


It is incredibly disturbing that Breivik demands a medal for his unthinkable actions. We are appalled by his courtroom smirks and attempts to apply reason to a slaughter that defies logic.

And yet, in the back of our minds, we wonder about the medals of honor that have been awarded for killing. We pin medals and ribbons across the chests of men who have looked their enemies in the eye  and shot them dead. We reward them because of the context–fighting to defend their countries, families, and beliefs. Breivik believes that he was carrying these same duties. As with Pierre, we are frightened by Breivik’s ability to communicate his killing in the language of war and defense. In rational sentences and with law-like precision. We see him as deranged because he acted in isolation and with disturbing”ethnic cleansing” views that remind us of the holocaust.

We point to his isolation as a sign for his craziness (as happened in the Riviere case) and highlight the fact that he was the leader of a “resistance” that did not actually exist. He was a man seeking “celebrity” and a following. He was alienated and dehumanized. And yet, as soon as his horrible act was committed, he reached out to the world. He had sculpted carefully the identity that he would present to the world.

How much of it was in his control?


When it comes to Breivik’s identification with Christianity and the Conservative party, uneasy reactions and guarded defense quickly occurred throughout media reactions. In this clip dissecting the comments made by Conservative station Fox News, we can imagine spiraling wedge arguments and trace hypocrisies throughout recent history. Is Breivik a rational terrorist, or insane? To define him as a terrorist feels extremely threatening — a conservative Christian who kills nearly a hundred people in the name of God? He must have been insane. And yet, following 9/11 Muslim people were often stereotypically associated with terrorism.

They were padded down at airports and glared at with nervous sideways glances in the subway. Their “ideology” became a source of blame for the catastrophic actions of the men flying those planes. What if we said the same about Christian ideology and Anders Breivik? What if the group he claimed to be leading had actually existed? How would this attack have been painted if he were not seen by the media as an isolated individual acting out of selfishness and deranged reasoning? Was Hitler “insane”?

These are questions that cannot be definitively answered, but they ring just the same. I am deeply disturbed by the acts committed by Anders Breivik. Wading through their complexities, I am disturbed too that they can’t be explained.


(In this attached document of Breivik Articles, you will find all referenced newspaper articles and a set of my own annotations.)


This entry was posted in Sociology SP635 at NUI Galway: The Abnormal.. Bookmark the permalink.

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