Madder than you Think

by Holly A. Case

Alen and Arkan

Alen R. (left) and Arkan (right)

Is there a relationship between politics and madness? The history of the legal strategy known as the insanity defense offers some clues. One thinker, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, was so haunted by the moral confusion of the insanity defense as to wonder whether there is a way to tell right from wrong without reference to right and left.

Last month before a packed courtroom in Graz, Austria, a man stood trial for three counts of murder and 108 counts of attempted murder. The defendant, Alen R., appeared each day in a white suit. His face, like his last name, was obscured in the Austrian media, but the case was such a high-profile one—all seven days of the proceedings were broadcast live and it was front-page news in every one of the Austrian dailies—that Alen R. became something of an anti-celebrity.

On June 20, 2015, just after midday, Alen R. ran down pedestrians and cyclists with his SUV along a route stretching more than a mile through the city center of Graz. Witnesses estimated his maximum speed to be over 60 miles per hour. At one point he stopped to attack two people with a knife. Over the five-minute duration of his “mad driving spree,” he killed three people and injured thirty-six, many of them seriously.

The focus of the trial came down to one question: “Is Alen R. so mentally ill that he can assume no responsibility for the apocalyptic drive in his SUV through the pedestrian zones of Graz?” At issue were the conflicting expert assessments of psychiatrists and a psychologist regarding the defendant's sanity: one had concluded that he was “of unsound mind” and should therefore be referred for psychiatric treatment rather than given a prison sentence, and another believed Alen R. to be very much “of sound mind” and said he should stand trial as an accused criminal. To break the tie, a third (German) psychiatrist was called in who diagnosed him with schizophrenia. In the end, the jury deferred to the testimony of a fourth expert, a psychologist, who declared Alen R. to be of sound enough mind to be criminally responsible for murder and attempted murder. He was given a life sentence (though it is not yet binding) along with a referral for incarceration in a facility for the criminally insane.

One matter that was largely skirted in the trial but hotly debated “on the street” was whether Alen R.'s drive had been politically motivated. Just prior to the attack he deleted all but one of his twitter posts, and the remaining one suggested the deed was not spontaneous, but planned. Interpretations varied widely: his estranged wife said he was a radicalized Muslim who made her wear a burka; he himself told police he felt he was being pursued by “Turks”; the psychologist who swayed the jury said he was obsessed with “hegemonic maleness” in the pattern of Grand Theft Auto: “He sits at the red light, feels himself threatened, then the light turns green and he puts the pedal to the floor. Objective achieved. Game over.”


Although the Austrian media was legally restrained from revealing some of Alen R.'s personal details during the trial, the British and American media were not. They gave his full name, Alen Rizvanović, and even posted photos of him. When I first saw his full name, a faint echo of association brought the “mad driver” into accidental relation with another media sensation from some years ago: Željko (Arkan) Ražnatović. But the association was absurd. Alen R. is a Muslim whose family fled the war in Bosnia when he was just four years old to settle in Austria. Insofar as anyone associates any politics with him, it is in the context of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the possibility that he had been radicalized prior to running amok.

Arkan R., on the other hand, was a Serb. He was also a criminal of international infamy who had organized his own paramilitary group known as Arkan's Tigers during the Yugoslav war. There is an iconic photo of him in dark-colored military gear, gun in one hand, a tiger cub by the scruff of its neck in the other. Members of the Tigers are ranged behind him atop a tank, all wearing dark uniforms and balaclavas. Only Arkan is showing his face. He had nothing to hide.

The contrast to Alen R. is striking, his face blurred out by the rules of a rule-of-law state, sitting in a white suit, head slightly bowed. Alen R. did not get away with murder. Arkan did. Indicted in absentia on several counts of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal, including torture and mass execution of captured Bosnian Muslims, he never stood trial. In fact, he became one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in the region, at least, until he was assassinated in the crowded lobby of a Belgrade hotel in 2000. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral.

The association of Alen R. with Arkan R. may be politically absurd, but it makes moral sense. In one of the many comment streams to the Austrian coverage of Alen R.'s trial I came across the following exchange: “People who run amok and intentionally kill strangers without political or religious motivation have a not inconsiderable personality disorder anyhow, one that can't be eliminated by simple therapeutic measures,” wrote one person. Another replied: “So a person is somehow less disturbed if they kill strangers with political or religious motivations?”


Beginning in the nineteenth century, as mass politics was just coming into existence, the legal basis for the insanity defense was the determination of whether—at the time a crime was committed—the perpetrator could tell the difference between right and wrong. Introducing moral categories (right and wrong) into the insanity defense set it on a collision course with politics. As politics increasingly focused on distinguishing between right and left, its method came to be about aligning this distinction with the one between right and wrong. Small wonder that modern politics is rife with competing claims that the other side is both morally suspect and of questionably sound mind.

Furthermore, the charge of insanity even came to serve as a kind of moral absolution. A great many movements and ideologies that have come to form states and make laws, laying down their own standards for right and wrong, were once considered insane—democracy, Bolshevism, Nazism/fascism, Islamic fundamentalism. Culture and history prime us to view the moral underdog as the champion of a deeper moral truth. Long before the modern era, Socrates famously and repeatedly “made the worse appear the better cause,” and Jesus Christ turned the morality of his time on its head (“So the last shall be first, and the first last”). When Christ said on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” was he not issuing a blanket assessment of humanity's collective insanity?

Sometimes it seems a shakedown of the moral order is just what the social order needs. But not always. Perhaps the starkest counterexample is offered by the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Though he did not kill anyone himself, Eichmann oversaw the logistics behind a significant part of the Holocaust of European Jewry, most notably the rapid mass deportation of 450,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. After the war he assumed a fake identity and joined thousands of other former Nazis and their sympathizers in self-imposed exile in Latin America.

Eichmann was captured in 1960 by Israeli agents and put on trial in Jerusalem. Among those present at the trial was the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who penned her now-famous reflections in a series of articles that later became a book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann's sanity was the centerpiece of Arendt's reflections. “It would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster, [a] Bluebeard in the dock,” she wrote. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Eichmann's normalcy was the surest indicator that “a new type of criminal” had entered the world, one who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.”

“[I]ntent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime,” Arendt continued. “Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed.” Yet for Arendt, the fact that Eichmann “merely…never realized what he was doing” should by no means exonerate him from judgment. She decried the “quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality” created by the case of Eichmann and those like him, which had produced a “reluctance everywhere to make judgments in terms of individual moral responsibility.”

Political power, be it right or left, Arendt insisted, stands in no necessary or fixed relation to right and wrong. But where do we get our understanding of right and wrong, if not from politics? In Arendt's view, matters of morality had to be worked out by the individual, and doing so would not be easy. Above all, it would require thinking for oneself. Under the Nazis, she wrote, “those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented.”

A decade after the Eichmann trial, Arendt gave a lecture on “Thinking and Moral Considerations” in which she made the case for thinking as a moral undertaking. “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge,” she told her audience, “it is the ability to tell right from wrong.” The opposite of thoughtlessness is thought; no form of automatism—political, religious, even moral—can stand in for it. Even if God forgives us when we “know not what we do,” it's still no excuse. Thoughtlessness cannot be the basis of morality. That way madness lies.