The only verdict: get him to the asylum

In Edgar Allan Poe's prescient short story "The Man of the Crowd", the narrator tracks an individual through the teeming streets of early-Victorian London. As day turns to night and the streams of humanity ebb away, our chronicler, initially unable to grasp the reason for the shabbily dressed man's agitation, realises with mounting horror that the one he is following is pathologically terrified of solitude - that this man cannot be without the crowd, that he cannot even exist without it, and so hurries on and on to where he can discover himself among the dregs of night town.

The brilliance of Poe's conceit is that he has already understood the paradox of urbanity's disease: the crowd at once robs us of our individuality and provides us with it. In the transitory regard of others, we are aught - but then so are they when our eyes scud across their faces. How many times have you apprehended your thoughts meandering in this fashion as you thread your way through massed humanity:

That man . . . the mole on his lip . . . the flick
of his hair . . . his patterned belt . . . unique . . .
so memorable . . . so instantly forgotten . . .

How to be alone

To contain this savage psychological antinomy is the essential task of society as commonly understood: between the solipsism of the individual and the automatism of the crowd are interspersed people-groupings of various sizes - family, workplace, friends and clubs - that make it possible, one hopes for no man or woman to be altogether cut off from the main. I say one hopes, because there are those who either slip through the knotted net of personalised bonds, or who wilfully choose to shrug off such constraints. These are the loners, the stalkers, the psychos, the men and women of the crowd - though principally men - for whom there is nothing twixt them and the fleshy maelstrom.Spree-killers are almost always men of the crowd in this precise sense: their sense of themselves is as individuals simultaneously overwhelmed by the mass and standing aloof from it. They are at once devoid of self-worth and visited by an overarching narcissism. They inflict the rage of their negativity - a sort of decoction of their isolate anonymity - on society, because this is what they can never belong to. When they look into an individual face they see only a brutish stereotype, and so they experience no pang of conscience when they snuff out a life. Harry Lime revolving on the Viennese Ferris wheel looks down on antlike humanity and cares not if one or 100 of these bugs are crushed by septicaemia. Anders Breivik stalks through the shrubbery of Utøya in search not of people to kill, but members of the Labour Party.

No conscience

So complete is the psychopath's experience of dehumanisation that it becomes meaningless to speak of him as possessing either a moral understanding of the acts he perpetrates or even an intellectual competence in respect of his performance of those acts, for both of these paradigms exist only in a societal dimension - and he exists on a wholly different plane. In fact, the so-called M'Naghten (or McNaughton) Rules for the prosecution of the insane make this perfectly clear, calling for a verdict of either "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty but insane" to be returned if it can be "clearly proved" that the accused either did not know what he was doing or, if he did, was unaware that what he was doing was wrong.

The urge that a traumatised society feels to reconstitute itself in the wake of a murderous assault by a man of this stamp is completely understandable. The lighting of tea lights and the laying of flowers outside the Lutheran cathedral in Oslo is the physical correlate of an assertion of the primacy of ethics over both the crowd and the individual. Less understandable is the idea that Breivik should be prosecuted under a law establishing the specious category of "crimes against humanity", purely to ensure that he be indefinitely imprisoned.

In a properly constituted society, which Norway is, all peacetime mass murderers are insane by definition. For them to become sane would be for them to experience conscience, but this never happens. Therefore they must be confined for ever to an asylum. The man of the crowd is left alone with others of his kind - what greater punishment can there be?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule