Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities

An interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Arts and Medicine & Health at the University of Leeds

Completely mad … but not legally insane?


Anders Behring Breivik is completely mad. Otherwise he could not have killed 77 people. But he is not legally insane. He knew what he did. He knew it was wrong,”

Today sees the closing arguments in the Breivik trial.

Here is Sky’s coverage.

Atypically, the prosecution are calling for him to be declared insane and the defence are pushing for a standard prison sentence.

Putting aside legal or medical ethical questions, the sheer linguistic tension is interesting.  What does being of ‘sound mind‘ mean in the context of murdering 77 strangers?  What does 25% of doubt in a person’s sanity look like?  Does the lay concept of madness no longer have any meaningful connection to the legal or the medical definitions of insanity?

Perhaps ‘madness’ has become a bucket term for all unacceptable behaviour, whereas legal and medical insanity have become mechanisms for rendering such behaviour as explicable (and excusable) as possible.  If Breivik is to be ‘completely mad’ but not ‘legally insane’, then his acts can be seen as vile and inherently wrong, without any need to attempt to understand (or better, refute) his motivation.

One comment on “Completely mad … but not legally insane?

  1. quantumphysica
    23 June, 2012

    It is hard to see where the line lays. I think “legally insane” means that the person in question didn’t realize what he was doing and that what he was doing is wrong in our society. Breivik was quite possibly completely aware of what he was doing,and even if you can say that’s clearly insanity, he can’t be put in a mental hospital for it. It’s a paradoxical thing if you ask me…

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