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Contagious madness

We must understand to what extent the Norwegian mass murderer's ultra-right delirium is shared by others in this world

Before getting into what this article is about, I would like to point out a truth, often repeated but as often forgotten: Statistically speaking, supposedly "normal" citizens commit considerably more acts of violence than those who suffer a mental disorder. That is, to be psychologically disturbed does not imply being a killer. Nor, of course, does it mean being an imbecile. And, as among the rest of society, among the mentally ill there are wonderful people and terrible people. Because mental pathology is only one circumstance of the individual, and does not define the whole individual.

Having said all this, I must say that the Norwegian killer (to mention his name would only satisfy his thirst for notoriety) is beyond doubt a mentally disturbed person, a psychopath incapable of feeling compassion for others around him, a man in the grip of a cold delirium which leads him to scribble reams of extravagant, unreadable prose that run to 1,500 pages, oozing obsessive hatred. Is not this just what we understand by madness? But the terrain of madness is slippery indeed. The hesitations in the language used by the media in categorizing this criminal have been very revealing. First we heard talk of an Islamist terrorist attack, then came a certain famine of adjectives as nobody could think of what to say. Still later there was talk of the extreme right; then the media insinuated that he was mentally disturbed, and now, as I write these lines that you will read two weeks from now, the general term seems to be "terrorist of the extreme right," although so far no accomplice has appeared.

Behind these waverings lie many things: fear of Islamic extremism, fear of a new terrorist front on the extreme right, fear of the meaninglessness of an act so terrible. And fear of madness, of course. I care little how they classify the killer, as long as they keep him behind bars for a long, long time. But I wonder what it is that society understands by "mad." When the mathematician John Nash received the Nobel prize in 1994, after several decades of psychiatric treatment for a schizophrenic disorder, he wrote a moving text which I have quoted before. Nash's condition has improved thanks to new pharmaceuticals and to tenacious self-control, "so at the present time I seem to think rationally again, in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However, this is not entirely a matter of joy, as if someone had returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos. For example, a non-Zoroastrian could think of Zarathustra as simply a madman who led million of naive followers to adopt a cult of ritual fire worship. But without his "madness" Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human beings who have lived and then been forgotten."

That is, if your lunacy is shared by many people, it ceases to be seen as madness. But this cosmic vision may by inoffensive, like that of Zarathustra, or very harmful. The mega-criminal plans of Al Qaeda or the world-view of the Talibans, who forbid girls to study and women to leave the house alone, are these not pathological phenomena, symptoms of mental illness? And what about Hitler? Were the Nazis not mad? But they are taken very seriously as enemies, and rightly, for there are multitudes of madmen.

This is the touchy frontier on which we find ourselves with the Norwegian killer. For me, as I have said, this individual is clearly disturbed (and also filled with malice, which has nothing to do with mental illness), but the most disturbing question, to which we urgently need to find an answer, is to what extent this ultra-right delirium is shared by others in this world, which seems to grow less rational and more violent every day. Because whole societies can also fall victim to mental illness, just as individuals can; and because what we call madness is a dizzy blind spot that spins inside each one of us.