On July 22, 2011, Norway experienced the immeasurable fallout from a pseudocommando whose perverted sense of honor and grandiose narcissism obliterated more than 70 innocent people. Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian extremist perpetrated a dual attack in Norway: the bombing of government buildings in Oslo that resulted in 8 deaths, and the mass shooting at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League of the Labour Party on the island of Utoya where he killed 69, most of whom were teenagers.3 Breivik composed a 1492-page manifesto he published hours before his attack.4 He was apprehended alive, and his mental state was being examined as this article was being written. After his capture, Breivik requested to be evaluated by Japanese mental health experts because “the Japanese understand the concept of honor better than the Europeans [emphasis added].”
Mass killings by such individuals are not new. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings began in the 1960s, ushered in by Charles Whitman atop the University of Texas at Austin tower, and henceforward became “a part of American life in recent decades.5” But research suggests that news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder—particularly the inaccurate assertion that its incidence is increasing.6 It is typically the high-profile cases that represent the most widely publicized yet least representative mass killings.
The research on pseudocommandos suggests that they are driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having paranoid character traits. Dietz2 described these individuals as “collectors of injustice” who hold onto every perceived insult, amassing a pile of “evidence” that they have been grossly mistreated. To sustain the revenge “romance,” they must corral the unwanted, hated, or feared aspects of themselves. This collection is then re-assembled into the form of an “enemy” who “deserves” to be the target of a merciless, incendiary rage. Thus, the pseudocommando maintains object relations with others, which are heavily based on envy and splitting.
. . . as I’m rushing through my city, guns blazing, with 100 armed system protectors pursuing me . . . I know there is a 80%+ chance I am going to die during the operation. . . .
Mullen7 described the results of his detailed forensic evaluations of 5 pseudocommando mass murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. Mullen noted that the massacres were often well planned out (ie, the offender did not suddenly “snap”): the offender arrived at the crime scene well-armed, often in camo or “warrior” gear. He appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of “payback.” Mullen’s study also found a number of traits and historical factors that these individuals had in common: They were bullied or isolated as children and had become “loners” who felt despair over being socially excluded. They were also described as being resentful grudge holders who demonstrated obsessional or rigid traits. (The Table lists the most common traits that are observed in pseudocommandos.)
Narcissistic, grandiose traits were present, along with heavy use of externalization. They held a generally disparaging view of others, which resulted in spending a great deal of time ruminating on past humiliations. The ruminations evolved into fantasies of violent revenge, to the point that the offenders seemed to “welcome death,” even perceiving it as bringing them “fame” with an aura of power. Most of the literature references the pseudocommando’s motivation of revenge, which may be directed at a group (pseudocommunity) or representative ideology.2,7,8
The revenge romance
He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate . . . and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick9
The desire for revenge “is a ubiquitous response to narcissistic injury.10” Greek mythology is replete with revenge themes.11 Revenge is the central motive in at least 20 of Shakespeare’s plays and the main theme in many of today’s Hollywood movies (eg, the “Death Wish” series and, more recently, the “Kill Bill” series, which highlight our fascination with “the sweet taste of payback”).12 Across almost every culture, the taking of revenge, when “justified,” has assumed “the status of a sacred obligation.13” In many cultures since biblical times and before, there has at least been the restraining notion of functional symmetry in seeking redress, such as the Old Testament’s admonition of “an eye for an eye.”
At this stage of our evolution, affronts to our self-esteem or narcissism are responded to as though they were a threat to our survival.14 We have maintained the physiological hard-wiring, available for excessive use in situations that do not involve survival of the body, but instead survival of the ego.15 In individuals with vulnerable, fragile (perhaps overly inflated) egos, threats to self-esteem may result in the harboring of destructive rage that eventually transforms them into avengers. Indeed, it is the frustration of the need to “preserve a solid sense of self,” that is often “the source of the most fanatical human violence [as well as] the everyday anger that all of us suffer.16”