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3Qs: The mindset behind mass murder

Last week’s terrorist attack in Norway stunned that nation and the world. We asked Jack Levin, the Brudnick Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, who specializes in the study of violence and hate, to discuss the mindset of the accused killer and the potential for changes in Norway’s judicial system, which imposes relatively lenient sentences for brutal crimes.

What can be learned from this tragedy?

Sadly, we learn that mass murder can happen anywhere, even in a country where residents pride themselves on their peaceful lives, their respect for differences and their low rate of violent crime. Moreover, we learn that our enemy is not Islam; it is fanaticism. The suspected killer was a white right-wing extremist, not a Muslim terrorist.

What is the significance of the accused Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto?

The suspected killer’s manifesto indicates that he had planned his crimes over a lengthy period of time. In addition, he felt compelled to justify his murderous attack in writing, in order to appear to be more of a victim than a villain. I think that he counts on his manifesto to humanize him. The sincerity of Breivik’s political motivation is called into question by his plagiarism of the Unabomber’s manifesto that he took as his own. It seems that certain mass killers — including Theodore Kaczynski, Seung-Hui Cho, and now Breivik — have a psychological need to explain their heinous crimes to friends, family and the public. Apparently, even they do not wish to be seen as evil monsters.

Breivik faces a maximum of 21 years in prison in Norway. How often do these types of horrific, high-profile murder cases lead to changes in a country’s judicial system?

High-profile crimes often inspire major changes in criminal justice policy. For example, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempting to assassinate President Reagan in March 1981, which angered many Americans. It caused the courts to place a greater burden on defendants who use that defense. In addition, new laws and policies to protect murdered children — including Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law in Florida and Amber Alert — have been enacted after the nation heard emotional testimony on the part of the victims’ families. Assuming he were convicted, it would not be surprising if the 21-year maximum prison sentence awaiting Breivik were extended to a life sentence for future killers.