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The Mindset Behind Mass Murder

Last week’s ter­rorist attack in Norway stunned that nation and the world. We asked Jack Levin, the Brud­nick Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Crim­i­nology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, who spe­cial­izes in the study of vio­lence and hate, to dis­cuss the mindset of the accused killer and the poten­tial for changes in Norway’s judi­cial system, which imposes rel­a­tively lenient sen­tences for brutal crimes.

What can be learned from this tragedy?

Sadly, we learn that mass murder can happen any­where, even in a country where res­i­dents pride them­selves on their peaceful lives, their respect for dif­fer­ences and their low rate of vio­lent crime. More­over, we learn that our enemy is not Islam; it is fanati­cism. The sus­pected killer was a white right-​​wing extremist, not a Muslim terrorist.

What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the accused Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto?

The sus­pected killer’s man­i­festo indi­cates that he had planned his crimes over a lengthy period of time. In addi­tion, he felt com­pelled to jus­tify his mur­derous attack in writing, in order to appear to be more of a victim than a vil­lain. I think that he counts on his man­i­festo to humanize him. The sin­cerity of Breivik’s polit­ical moti­va­tion is called into ques­tion by his pla­gia­rism of the Unabomber’s man­i­festo that he took as his own. It seems that cer­tain mass killers — including Theodore Kaczynski, Seung-​​Hui Cho, and now Breivik — have a psy­cho­log­ical need to explain their heinous crimes to friends, family and the public. Appar­ently, even they do not wish to be seen as evil monsters.

Breivik faces a max­imum of 21 years in prison in Norway. How often do these types of hor­rific, high-​​profile murder cases lead to changes in a country’s judi­cial system?

High-​​profile crimes often inspire major changes in crim­inal jus­tice policy. For example, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempting to assas­si­nate Pres­i­dent Reagan in March 1981, which angered many Amer­i­cans. It caused the courts to place a greater burden on defen­dants who use that defense. In addi­tion, new laws and poli­cies to pro­tect mur­dered chil­dren — including Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law in Florida and Amber Alert — have been enacted after the nation heard emo­tional tes­ti­mony on the part of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies. Assuming he were con­victed, it would not be sur­prising if the 21-​​year max­imum prison sen­tence awaiting Breivik were extended to a life sen­tence for future killers.

– by Greg St. Martin

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