Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
I naturally resist madness as an explanation for heinous behavior by people towards their fellows. It is designed to be an easy explanation. It has to be easy in order to let us comfortably feel better about ourselves by pigeonholing the motives and behaviors of those we revile - Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Tomohiro Kato, Tsutomu Miyazaki, Shoko Asahara, etc. Such people may indeed be said to suffer some sort of diminished capacity, but over-use of the madness excuse leads us to mis-take the reality of our human condition, a condition in which any normal person is capable of practically any ‘abnormal’ thing given the right confluence of circumstances.
Now in Norway Anders Behring Breivik, who last summer gunned down dozens of teenagers at a summer camp after setting off a deadly car bomb in the capital, Oslo, is on trial in a court that has accepted his sanity. Some call it a mistake because his trial merely gives him a platform to spout his fascist views of foreigners, Muslims and multiculturalism (“Breivik gives court chilling account of attacks,” April 22, 2012, “Breivik played video games ‘to sharpen aim,’” April 21, 2012). But a person’s apparently mad, insensible behavior is not necessarily without reason. The important point is not that the majority disagrees with their reasons or motives but for all of us to notice that their reasons are wrong. The Nazis, for example, did not commit genocide on a whim, without reasons. They had plenty of reasons, all wrong. So it is with Mr. Breivik.
So on the one hand we might recognize that trials of heinous offenders are good teaching moments - for the benefit of offenders themselves and of the spectator public. But on the other hand the general public’s tolerance is stretched to the limit by the necessity of the trial process and enduring hearing offenders’ pathetic defense of themselves.
By a similar measure I also naturally resist the use of pathology human genius. For example, explaining Glenn Gould’s musical talent as a symptom of some kind of autism. Or Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic talent as a symptom of some kind of epilepsy.