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A Norway cup soccer player warms next to a makeshift memorial alongside the football pitches for the victims on government buildings and massacre on the youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party in Oslo on July 31, 2011. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images/Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
A Norway cup soccer player warms next to a makeshift memorial alongside the football pitches for the victims on government buildings and massacre on the youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party in Oslo on July 31, 2011. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images/Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

Psychology

Norway's Anders Brievik: looking into the mind of a mass killer Add to ...

Anders Breivik is a rarity - a spree killer who was caught alive. What insights could be gained from talking to a man who successfully perpetrated a horrific crime with dark political overtones? The Globe's John Allemang asked a panel of experts how they would examine the Norwegian and analyze what he said.

Is he worth talking to?

Jon Cole: If you want to be on the lookout for people like Anders Breivik, you'll learn an awful lot about radicalization by talking to him. Does he represent a groundswell of opinion in Norwegian society around the touchpoints he refers to like immigration? Or is he just an isolated individual with a mental-health problem?

Emanuel Tanay: A person like this has to be examined. He went about what he did in a very "rational" way; but if you look at the whole thing, is he rational? People always come up with a rational explanation, something that makes it bad, not mad. But I believe we'll find out this man is psychotic.

Peter Keefe: His delusions seem to centre around issues connected with Islamophobia. So he's worth talking to for broader edification: What kind of phenomenon is this, how has it crystallized in this particular way and why did he kill his own people?

Roger McIntyre: His 1,500-page manifesto will give you some insight into his thought processes. But when you actually have the person before you, it's an in vivo, organic experience because the personality's not contrived. The manifesto on its own could confound your assessment: It may look more coherent because he got it from somewhere else; it may be a cut and paste.

Are there drawbacks?

Jon Cole: Do you want to give them the platform to spout whatever they want? Beyond that, the problem with talking to people like Anders Breivik is that you don't know if they're telling you stuff because they want you to hear it or because it's the truth.

Lise Van Susteren: A 1,500-page manifesto? That means he's crazy. Nasty people hang around each other but crazy people don't. There's not much you can glean from a crazy person who acts alone.

His lawyer says he's insane and the authorities are treating him as an isolated case. How does that affect your approach?

Peter Collins: I'd just let him talk, to gauge his mental state. It's common to say someone like this must be a madman. These people can have personality problems, but they can still be intact mentally. Take Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber. He thought his bombing would influence the population at large and lead to the second American revolution. That's faulty thinking, but it doesn't mean he was mentally disturbed.

Emanuel Tanay: You talk about almost anything: Tell me about yourself, what happened, how did this come about? He'd tell me: There are these awful people who are Muslims and Muslim sympathizers - and I would listen and put it together and look at his intensity. What people do isn't just about thinking and rationality: Emotions determine human behaviour. Humans are social animals, Aristotle said, and suddenly here is an asocial human being who kills youngsters. That takes an absence of empathy.

Roger McIntyre: What's interesting at the psychiatric level is the degree of sophistication he has, the amount of organization in his belief systems. But if you delve deeply, the thought processes can become much less coherent - that was the case with the Unabomber.

Erna Paris: I don't think he's one of a kind at all. If you asked him who he was, I'm sure he'd say that he sees himself as a part of a pan-European nativist movement trying to defend an old status quo. And he could be very right: The more this discourse is allowed to persist, the more normalized it becomes.

Emanuel Tanay: If I find out a few thousand people support his behaviour, I'd be very troubled. If I find out this was the action of a psychotic, I'll be reassured. It's not a movement; it's an event.

What can we learn from talking to him and studying his case?

Emanuel Tanay: He teaches us one thing clearly: If you mix psychosis and guns, you have homicide.

Jon Cole: How did he manage to leave a bomb in a car that was parked for a considerable time outside a key government building and no one noticed?

Peter Collins: Were there advance indicators, what we call a leakage of conscience? Was he commenting, was he giving clues?

Peter Keefe: As a clinician, I find myself interested in his upbringing. We know his parents split up when he was a small child, so what was he exposed to? He can teach us about young and vulnerable people who haven't formed a strong identity, who are susceptible to the allure of a group.

Lise Van Susteren: There's little value in talking to him from a political perspective except for this: How could he get so much fertilizer? The theme that Europeans are afraid of Muslim immigrants is well known. The only thing you're likely to get from him is how easy it was to get the fertilizer and the guns and the policeman's uniform. And then you plug up whatever routes he used to get these things.

Jon Cole: The decisions that he made are interesting because it allows us to gauge how other people would do it. You're looking for patterns in decision-making.

Erna Paris: He could teach us how well he understood propaganda and its uses. The people who create extremist propaganda and spread it are trying to alter progressively the culture of the society they live in. And if they can't do that through the electoral process - Breivik himself belonged to Norway's Progress Party - they'll often feel betrayed and become radicalized. This sort of personality could then be pushed into an act like this and truly believe that it is for the good of the world.

Suppose he is insane? What lessons can that teach us?

Lise Van Susteren: Crazies that act violently have been well studied by psychiatrists, but here's the missing piece: How do we get them into treatment before they do anything bad? It's extremely difficult to get them off the street because we protect their civil rights so that they can be supposedly free. And yet at the same time we provide them with ready access to guns and the material to make bombs.

Jon Cole: If a mental-health worker comes across someone who's espousing grievances toward a government for allowing too many immigrants, that information should be reported upwards. Then if the local police report that this person is acquiring firearms, someone can put the two pieces together: The risk has gone from idle banter to having the means and the capability to do something.

Roger McIntyre: The stigma around mental illness is a critical part of the story. There's a pervasive belief that mental illness and violence are companions - look at the Jared Loughner case in Arizona. But not all mentally ill people share a proclivity toward violence. It's only a subpopulation that pose a risk.

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The experts

Jon Cole teaches psychology at the University of Liverpool

Emanuel Tanay is a forensic psychiatrist in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Peter Keefe teaches psychiatry at the University of Toronto

Roger McIntyre is head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network, Toronto

Lise Van Susteren is a forensic psychiatrist in Washington and former profiler for the CIA.

Peter Collins is a Canadian forensic psychiatrist and consultant to police forces

Erna Paris is a historian and author of Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair

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