Terror in Europe

From The Nazis To Nice, Teasing Out The Logic Of Evil

Terrorists and mass murderers are often seen as maniacs. But that may hide an uncomfortable truth: You don’t have to be insane to commit atrocities.

Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
Joachim Käppner


"They're insane."

"Only a total lunatic, a psychopath, would do such a thing."

"How sick is that?"

"You've really got to be crazy."

You hear sentences like these on a daily basis, from friends and colleagues, in newspapers and on TV. Internet forums are full of them. It's common knowledge, after what happened in Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Ansbach â€" these very different, but all highly disconcerting crimes â€" that the Tunisian guy with the truck, the boy with the axe, the person running amok with the gun and the guy with the backpack full of explosives all must have mental issues.

But how does this categorization help? Not at all, according to forensic experts. "Of course, it's a common colloquialism to call the guy who blows himself up in the middle of a crowd insane," says one German psychiatry professor. "In that sense, the Nazis were crazy, too. But from a clinical and legal point of view, this pathologizing doesn’t work at all."

Calling these offenders crazy is a natural thing to do: the pathologization of their crimes is an attempt to make some kind of sense from the incomprehensible. Naturally, it also blurs the culprit's image, involuntarily relieving person of responsibility. Thinking that someone who commits such a horrible crime must be mentally ill, and therefore considering the crime itself proof of the offender’s mental incapacity, is as old as criminality itself. It’s the strategy employed by lawyers everyday to save their clients from conviction.

In those attributions of insanity, which are often false, one can see society's degree of preconceptions concerning mental illness. If someone’s "somehow strange," sad or disturbed, full of hate, he or she might conceivably lose it at some point. Some commentators don’t hesitate to openly draw connections between depression and going berserk.

The consequence of such opinions is the stigmatization of those who are truly ill. And it’s unclear whether the depression David S. in Munich was treated for eventually led to his rampage. Experts know that depression usually leads to withdrawal, listlessness, torpidity and suicide rather than deadly aggression towards others.

"It’s highly unlikely that the culprit’s depression is the reason for his act in Munich," noted Ulrich Hegerl, a chair of the German Foundation for Depression Relief.

But such distinctions are blurry. At the Würzburg Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, professor Marcel Romanos sees a dangerous trend of "continuously equating mental illness with sociopathy and being a danger to the public." Doing so is absurd considering that in Germany, one in three people suffers from a mental illness at some point, but most never become dangerous.

On the other hand, in his book Social Anxiety Disorder, fear researcher Borwin Bandelow observes that "many terrorists are the result of their paranoid personality disorder." He also differentiates among narcissistic, antisocial and paranoid terrorists. The narcissists want to go down in history as heroes; the antisocial hide their pleasure in killing behind ideology; and the paranoid feel persecuted by the world. Bandelow further explains that a terrorist with a borderline personality could become a dangerous suicide attacker out of impulsivity.

Reproachful conclusions

All of this obviously does not explain how strong a personality disorder is and to what extent it can be held responsible for a specific attack. The greater the disorder, the lesser the perpetrator's responsibility. The case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik shows how delicate using the scales truly is, even for experts.

The first expert opinion in 2011 declared Breivik paranoid, schizophrenic and certifiably insane during the attack. A second opinion claimed he indeed suffered from a narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder, but said he was not mentally ill to an extent that would justify what he had done. Breivik went to court and was convicted.

Breivik standing trial in Oslo District Cour on April 16, 2012 â€" Photo: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/Xinhua/ZUMA

Youth psychiatrist Romanos notes that such cases are extremely rare. "Only a few mental disorders lead to exemption from criminal responsibility," he says. Psychiatrists estimate that nearly half of Germany's inmates are mentally ill. Some prisoners suffer from personality disorders with an obvious lack in empathy; others are violent criminals with antisocial traits. And yet all are criminally liable. Otherwise they’d be in an asylum, not in prison.

That's what’s so problematic about stereotyped thinking when it comes to mental illness. Every time the public finds out that a criminal like David S. in Munich had been undergoing psychological treatment, critics quickly come to reproachful conclusions: Why didn’t anybody notice anything? How could they let him go free?

Germany’s major youth psychiatric facilities treat thousands of patients each year, about one tenth of whom are hospitalized. Some obviously have violent tendencies. But if you tried to lock away in a psychiatric institution anyone who might one day become a threat â€" a move that is, incidentally, out of step with the times â€" there would be no room for all the patients. If there's only the slightest doubt about the propensity of certain individuals for violence, the same critics often claim, then you’re locking them away unscrupulously, treating them like dangerous maniacs.

The theory of mental illness as a cause of terrorism further misjudges the influence of social structures and peers. Without trying to compare the incomparable, the Nazis’ killing was, to the victims of that time, nothing more than what today’s Islamic terror is to us: a series of incomprehensible atrocities, committed by people who clearly live in a psychic universe that shuns all rules of morality, sanity and peaceful cohabitation.

The degree of brutality that is required for a human being to beat Jewish children to death or kill dozens of innocent people with a truck, as happened in Nice, is hard to bear, as is the carnage in civil wars all over the world. The so-called evil isn’t a medical category.

Paradoxically, calling the culprits "maniacs" has backward consequences. It makes the guilty not legally responsible. Today’s terror doesn’t work that way, and neither did the racial fanaticism of the Nazis. Their devastating racial madness was, of course, delusional. When in 1941 the Nazis killed 33,000 Jewish civilians, they were following a construct of ideas that was completely detached from reality. And young people who learn about the crimes of the past ask the same questions when faced with the horrifying acts that have shocked the Western world recently: How can people do such things? How sick do you have to be?

The answer is disconcerting: Not sick at all. You don’t have to be mentally ill to commit horrible crimes. Ideology makes people do things the rest of the world considers delusional. According to the system the doer is in, the person's behavior is normal, even heroic. That's why suicide attackers take as many people as possible with them. According to their logic, this is the best way to head for paradise. In the mass-murder dynamic of the Nazis, people who killed thousands of Jews proved themselves "decent human beings," in the words of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.

Psychiatrist Romanos has recently witnessed a whole different form of mental suffering in Würzburg. Many unaccompanied young refugees have been hospitalized because they are at risk for suicide. "These are traumatized young people other teenagers now accuse of being sleepers and terrorists," he says. "And that kind of psychological strain has become almost unbearable for them."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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