There have been several varieties of the "terrorist are crazy" meme that are reliably expounded whenever an atrocity occurs. We feel comforted by the idea that one of us could commit such an atrocity as Breivik only if we were "crazy".
William Falk, the Editor of The Week, a newsweekly and member of the New York Times News Service, in the course of offering his take on the interaction between blogs and Breivik's attack in the August 5th edition, provided his reasoning behind the "Breivik is insane" meme: [Emphasis added-SW]
All Muslims are terrorists, and all terrorists, Muslim. Barack Obama is a Marxist on a mission to destroy the U.S. economy, after which he will establish concentration camps for Christians. All Republicans are heartless fascists motivated by hatred of blacks, old people, and the poor. These examples of extreme black-and-white thinking, which psychologists would see as evidence of mental illness, can be found every day on the fevered fringes of the blogosphere. Anders Behring Breivik spent a lot of time in that alternative reality, soaking up U.S.-based blogs that insist day after day that "Islam is intrinsically violent" (Jihad Watch) and that 'the 'moderate Islam' meme [is] a theory with no basis in reality or history" (Atlas Shrugs). Breivik cited these blogs hundreds of times in the 1,516-page manifesto he posted before he went off to slaughter the children of Norwegian socialists. The irony, of course, is that Breivik's violent and apocalyptic worldview is a mirror image of the one found on Jihadist websites; for both the Nordic Crusader and the soldier of Allah, there us no gray-only black and white, Us and Them, humiliation and vengeance.
But let us not blame blogs or the internet for the proliferation of extremism; they are merely tools. Let us blame black-and-white thinking itself, and the people who indulge in it. To live in a world devoid of doubt and ambiguity is seductive, and deeply satisfying, but its crazy, and inevitably leads to crazy results. If people who think differently from you aren't merely different, but evil, then you mustn't bargain with them, or even tolerate them. You must destroy them. Ands so it goes.
To quote Wolfgang Pauli in a different context: This isn't right. This isn't even wrong.
First of all, no reputable Psychologist with the least amount of training would ever agree that "black-and-white" thinking is prima facie evidence of mental illness. That is a nonsensical statement that shows a complete lack of understanding of how our minds are structured and operate. More formally understood as a derivative of the psychological function know as "splitting", black-and-white thinking is ubiquitous and ultimately, an intrinsic aspect of human rationality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the scientific method depends on black-and-white thinking; what, after all, is the scientific method but systematizing the differentiation between one's hypothesis and the null hypothesis! In fact, the first, most basic mental distinction an infant learns is a black-and-white distinction between what belongs to one's own mind and body (self) and what belongs to that larger realm of not-self. This is a binary structure. Something is either self or not-self. People who do not negotiate this psychological milestone are prone to psychotic compensations. Without getting too deep into the subject, the point is that our brains, and our minds (which are either derivatives or epiphenomena of our brains) are especially designed to seek out edges, those boundaries that divide one thing from another. Our visual systems even have specialized cells which fire only when boundaries are crossed; our brains distinguish edges (especially when in motion) much more effectively than "shades of gray." The binary, black-and-white distinction is the bedrock of mentation! It is only as our brains develop and mature that we can begin to overcome our innate tendency to dichotomize the world and enlarge our concepts of Self (which comes to include family/tribe/country) and Other.
In the simplest terms, black-and-white thinking is baseline; nuance and texture requires a constant struggle to maintain one's higher order cognitive functioning (the rational mind) despite the constant pressure from the emotional mind to regress to a position of all-good versus all-bad.
Under duress, when we tend to regress to earlier levels and models of function, we quite easily fall into a world where splitting is prominently featured. As a physician I can assure you that perfectly normal people, in the face of bad news, can quite readily go from seeing their Doctor as a brilliant, heroic, saving figure to an incompetent charlatan in the blink of an eye. Healthy people do not remain trapped in the regressed state that is characterized by collapsing the world into all-good versus all-bad objects (the analogue of Falk's black-and-white thinking) but are able to recover and resume using higher order cognitive abilities which represent the triumph of rationality.
There is an additional point where Falk's reasoning collapses. Whether or not you agree with the premises of the anti-Jihad blogs, when the writers at Jihad Watch or Atlas Shrugs exaggerate, as all of us do from time to time, and write words that paint all Muslims as the enemy of civilization, they specifically do not recommend taking up arms and murdering innocents as a way to combat the spread of Sharia. Our greatest problem with Islam today is that far too many of those who speak for Islam or defend Islam, quite specifically support or rationalize the use of violence against innocents to combat those who are labeled as enemies of Islam.
Consider the Norwegian Ambassador's shameful and reprehensible remarks rationalizing Palestinian terrorism:
In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv, Norway's ambassador to Israel Svein Sevje patiently explained that he wanted to "outline the similarity and the difference in the two cases."
Palestinians, the ambassador told Maariv, "are doing this because of a defined goal that is related to the Israeli occupation. There are elements of revenge against Israel and hatred of Israel. To this you can add the religious element to their actions."
"In the case of the terror attack in Norway, the murderer had an ideology that says that Norway, particularly the Labor Party, is forgoing Norwegian culture," Sevje said, referring to Anders Breivik.
"We Norwegians consider the occupation to be the cause of the terror against Israel," he said. "Those who believe this will not change their mind because of the attack in Oslo."
This came after Israel was one of the first countries to reach out to Norway after the attacks and offer its condolences and assistance.
Sevje's reasoning is not only morally corrupt and inverted, it is also a wonderfully simplistic example of what Falk would refer to as black-and-white thinking. In this case, Sevje makes a distinction where none exists between Breivik, who committed his crimes out of a belief system that holds the Norwegian Labor party is an agent of a dangerous ideology which aims to destroy Norway, and the Palestinians, who act out of a belief system (with which, apparently Sevje agrees) that Israel is an embodiment of a dangerous ideology which aims to destroy the Palestinian people. In both cases, the thinking could not be more simplistic, debased, and regressed, in a word, an example of splitting. For Breivik and Sevje, one side is all-bad, the other all-good. They might disagree on who gets assigned to which condition but they agree with the structure of splitting that is apparent in what passes for both men's thinking.
So, if splitting per se does not explain the distinction between crazy and not crazy, how do we attempt to tease out when an individual who does something horrific has indeed crossed the line from reality to unreality? That is a subject for Part III.