Lessons from a Mass Murderer

News reports on the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered 77 people on the island of Utøya, near Oslo, last year, are being filed from a different moral universe. In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells imagined that Martian “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” were scrutinising and studying earthlings “as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water”.

That could be a description of Breivik. His cool detachment in the court as he recalled how he stalked and shot his helpless victims was terrifying. It is a great mercy that he failed to kill more innocent people.

But his conscience remains untroubled. He has constructed a moral system in which his actions were needed to counter the poisonous influence of Muslims and Marxists in Norway. He cites evidence and experts to back up his claims. “I know it is gruesome what I have done and I know that I have caused an incredible amount of pain to thousands of people,” he told the court. “But it was necessary. I would do it again.”

How can this extraterrestrial fit into life amongst earthlings, a being so bereft of emotion, fellowship, or compassion that he could spend years planning the decapitation of a former prime minister and the slaughter of hundreds of innocent teenagers?

There are no ready categories for man like Anders Behring Breivik. Perhaps that accounts for the endless palaver about whether he represents a first wave of violent Islamophobia in Europe. It is easier to cope with an evil ideology than with an evil man.

If he is not from Mars, he must be sane or insane. If he is sane, how could he act so inhumanly? If he is insane, how can he appear so normal? Psychiatrists may eventually find words to describe his mental state, but how this evil emerged in a tranquil society like Norway is almost inexplicable, unless perhaps you invoke supernatural powers beyond our ken.

And yet, having said all that, we mustn’t treat Breivik as an intruder from an alien world. In some respects the way he thinks is all too familiar. It represents an extreme — a hyper-extreme – corollary to a moral code based only upon autonomy and rational choice.

Breivik made a conscious choice. There is no question whatsoever that he acted freely. He was not angry. He even practiced meditation to control unruly passions. “First of all,” he testified, “if you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years. We have seen from military traditions you cannot send an unprepared person into war.”

This has a familiar ring to it. Euthanasia and abortion are nearly always justified by invoking autonomy and choice, as well. In these cases, it is rationalised as a choice which hurts no one else. But harm to others is not the central issue for supporters. They argue that the act of making a fully-informed, voluntary choice determines the essential goodness of the action.

Breivik’s murderous day in July last year blows this approach to moral reasoning out of the water. Choices cannot be good or bad simply because they are made freely. Only if the action is good can the choice be good.

The second morality lesson relates to the “yuck factor”. For contemporary ethicists, a sense of moral repugnance is often regarded as an obstacle rather than as flashing red light that an act might be depraved. Objections to same-sex marriage, for example, are dismissed as the fruit of emotional bias.

A typical critique of the “yuck factor” comes from utilitarian bioethicist John Harris: “there is no necessary connection between phenomena, attitudes, or actions that make us uneasy, or even those that disgust us, and those phenomena, attitudes, and actions that there are good reasons for judging unethical”. From the other side of the Atlantic, philosopher Martha Nusssbaum argues in her book From Disgust to Humanity that repugnance is a justification for oppression and vilification.

But what happened on the island of Utoya suggests that we mute our instinctive reactions at our peril. As Breivik began the killing spree, he was swept by a wave of repugnance. “My whole body tried to revolt when I took the weapon in my hand,” he told the court. “There were a hundred voices in my head saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’” He did it.

Repugnance is an emotion, not a reason. But it can be, in the words of bioethicist Leon Kass, “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”. Breivik ignored it. He was pumped full of reasons why the children of Norway’s left-wing intelligentsia had to be exterminated. He made a “rational choice” uncontaminated by emotion. And it was horrifically wrong.

If anything can be learned from this despicable man, it is the danger of creating one’s own moral law. Nature did a pretty good job the first time around. It is folly to think that we can improve on it.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Cover Photo Credit: Lise Aserud/EPA

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • MaryK

    Your last line is something I want to keep in mind, “If anything can be learned from this despicable man, it is the danger of creating one’s own moral law.”  It seems that every day news contains despicable acts by supposedly ‘normal’ people and I wonder how he/she can ever justify doing such horrific crimes against fellow human beings [or animals, or nature, or whatever].  Yesterday, in my neighborhood a man planned to do away with his wife and 4 children [and probably a few neighbors] by blowing up his house in the early morning hours while he hid like a cowardly rat a couple miles away.  Luckily, his wife smelled the gas, got herself and children out while others fixed the cut lines.  

    I am simply astonished and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of human depravity.  And yet, I have to also believe that God is infinitely greater that the sum of all evil in the world.  Otherwise, I would despair.

  • Apilgrimsoldier

    Creating one’s own moral law is foolish. There are many out there who believe they have to create their own moral law because of the secular influence on all our cultural outlets. They are being made into fools.

    Even Anders heard the voices of reason pleading with him, as he attested just before he killed those people. He indicated he had been given a final chance to stop the evil he had planned to do. He now appears to be pleased that he’s developed the ability to ignore the call of his conscience. God speaks to our heart. He gives us free will.

    Catholics, all Christians and people of good will should get busy evangelizing, fasting and praying more. We are so blessed to have our leaders who encourage us to do just that.  The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, is a beautiful prayer “for the whole world” led by people on EWTN, a live stream on the internet every day at 3 o’clock. I’m learning it and I feel it is effective.  It is a call to love all people throughout the whole world because God does. God calls us to help them. We can’t without praying for them, at least. God’s law calls us to love as He has loved us. This is the moral law we must abide by.    

  • I like Mr. Cook’s keen thinking. Nonetheless, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”  Aesop (620 BC – 560 BC)

  • Florin S.

    Consider the abortionists scalpel that dismembers and cuts into little pieces a tiny human being in the womb of his mother and the abortionist does this over and over and over again. Some, like George Tiller, kill a 9 month gestated baby in the womb with an injection and then delivers the dead baby whole so the mother can have her picture taken with the dead baby; at times, Tiller posed with the mother and dead baby. Do you ever wonder how humanity can keep going with such horrors taking place every single minute on this planet…over 50 million human babies killed at the order of their mothers? Evil saturates this planet…Mother Teresa used to say often that a country that kills its young cannot survive and that abortion, the slaughter of innocent preborn human babies is the root and source of all evil…she is right.

  • Hole

    having stupid radical ideas and acting on them is a problem, not “your own moral law”. Radicalism and fundamentalism, expecially of the religious and nationalist type is what has killled more people than anyhing else. People should relax and not overestimate what they believe: just try to have good time and not spoil it for others.