What do Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis, Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, and Isis killers Mohammed Emwazi and Jake Bilardi have in common? Delusions of grandeur, a fear of failure and a need for admiration
When Man Haron Monis, self-styled Islamic cleric, took 18 hostages in the Lindt cafe in Sydney, he declared himself to be a jihadist on behalf of Islamic State. Reports of the siege immediately went global. But, in fact, Monis had no connection to the group; he had brought the wrong flag to his own siege, and demanded that police bring him the right one in exchange for releasing hostages.
In the inquest into the siege, which concluded last week, Monis was described as a “man spiralling downwards”. He had no job but many debts, had lost custody of his children and faced a lengthy jail term. Seeking “power and influence”, he had even briefly joined a biker gang, but was rejected as too “weird”. “His constant goal in life,” junior assisting counsel Sophie Callan summed up, “appears to have been achieving significance.”
Pretending to be an important cleric, in reality he was on bail for sordid crimes: as an accessory to his ex-wife’s murder and for multiple sexual assaults on women, committed while posing as a “spiritual healer”. He claimed to be a refugee fleeing persecution in Iran; it now seems likely he fled after embezzling money. Diagnosed with a number of mental health problems, he was a relentless attention seeker with delusions of grandeur and a con man, who elevated his personal grievances with the heavenly glow of Islamic jihadism.
Before he took hostages, Monis sent vicious letters to the grieving families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Monis’s lawyer sternly instructed him not to talk to the press when he was on trial for this crime. It would harm his case. Like a moth to the flame, Monis rushed out to the assembled media and stood gesticulating, long robes fluttering, proclaiming dramatically: “This pen is my gun and these words are my bullets.”
It was a humiliation – the Australian high court threw out an appeal against his conviction for the defamatory letters – that provided the emotional trigger for the subsequent siege. Monis would have been understood, and diminished by being seen, as his lawyer described him, as “a damaged goods individual”. Accordingly, he wrapped his outburst of deadly rage in an Isis flag, and claimed he was acting on behalf of the caliphate. Like other lone-wolf killers, he gained a greater significance to his actions by attaching his personal grievance to a larger ideology. And like so many of this decade’s most infamous terrorists and murderers, his theatrical crimes suggest he was pathologically narcissistic.
Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pervasive grandiosity, an extreme desire for attention, a sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit or mistreat others, an excessive need for admiration and a lack of empathy. Yet narcissists can be fragile too and prone to outbursts of humiliated rage. Their grandiose self-beliefs are built on foundations as solid as quicksand, hence the need for constant admiration and attention, shoring up their unstable sense of self.
As the co-author of a recent study, Brad Bushman, explains, narcissism is the claim that you are superior to other people. From this core belief, bad things flow. “I’ve been studying aggression for about 30 years,” says Bushman, “and I’ve seen that the most harmful belief that a person can have is that they’re superior to others.” Narcissists “fantasise about personal successes and believe they deserve special treatment. When they feel humiliated, they often lash out aggressively or even violently.”
Psychologists warn that narcissism is on the increase. Invisibility is a central terror of the narcissist, and in our world of hyper-individualism, the competitive pursuit of attention produces winners and losers, those who painfully feel passed over and excluded. One response to the shame of exclusion and marginalisation is violence, which enacts revenge at the same moment that it lifts the person out of oblivion.
At the more pathological end of the spectrum, we have what the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg called malignant narcissism, the source of much “evil in the world”. Disappointed in reality, love turns inward, the self becomes idealised, doted upon, admired and excused. Narcissism becomes deadly when destructive impulses become fused with the conscience, transforming lying, manipulation, murder or even terrorism into noble, moral acts. Malignant narcissists may even kill to slake their thirst for attention.
While we may never know with certainty why the Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz flew a plane with 149 other people into a mountain, his behaviour has many resonances with that of Monis and other narcissists. He once warned a girlfriend: “One day, I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.” Narcissists can have violent mood swings as they are alternately inflated and deflated, puffed up by hubris, or crushed by a collision with reality that cracks open a cauldron of shame. In Lubitz’s case, he had just suffered blows to central life goals – remaining a pilot, making captain, and keeping a longstanding girlfriend after cheating on her. She and others have said that Lubitz had frightening mood swings and aggressive outbursts. Excessively preoccupied about how he looked and how he appeared to others, he responded to his girlfriend’s doubts by suddenly buying two prestige Audis – a his and a hers – just before the crash.
Depression is a deeply painful condition, usually marked by withdrawal, ruminative sadness, self-blame and excessive guilt. Those concerned about the stigmatisation of depression after Lubitz rightly point to the fact that self-harm rather than violence is more likely. There is a very different kind of depression however; the shame-rage spiral of the narcissist who reacts to failure with other-directed, humiliated fury. As Jeff Victoroff, neuropsychiatrist at the University of Southern California argued in the LA Times: “We need to stop talking as if this was a suicidal guy with access to an airplane. This was a murderous guy who probably had elements of a mood disorder and personality disorders.”
In narcissism, an inflated grandiosity is repeatedly punctured by an unbending reality. Depression and even suicide can be the reaction. Elsa Ronningstam, a Boston-based specialist in narcissism, calls this the “my way or no way!” suicide. The narcissist defends against feelings of catastrophic failure by resorting to a fantasy of specialness, an illusion of mastery and control. Sentiments such as “I fear nothing, not even death” (Lubitz’s breathing as the plane hurtled towards the mountain was steady); “death before dishonour” (failing to make it as captain); and “I’ll show you” (the rejecting girlfriend, the wider world) can be elements in the egoistic suicide. In pathological narcissism there is a complete lack of empathy towards those that rage destroys, such as the 149 others he killed. If Lubitz wanted fame, he was rewarded posthumously. Since the crash, searching for his name on Google brings up more than 12m hits.
‘Who gets to decide who lives or dies?’ ‘Me’
Or consider Anders Breivik, responsible for the slaughter of 77 people in Norway. He wanted to be the worst mass murderer in history. Psychiatrists did not find that he had paranoid schizophrenia, as first thought, but several disorders, most notably an extreme narcissistic personality disorder.
Breivik’s narcissism is in abundant evidence in Asne Seierstadt’s new, gripping account of his life and crimes, One of Us. When police tried to take a mugshot of him, he protested. He wanted them to use Photoshopped studio images he had posted online. Foreseeing the humiliation of not looking his best after the massacre, these showed him with makeup and in powerful poses – wearing military garb festooned with medals, or aiming a rifle in a tight sports suit with the words “Marxist Hunter” emblazoned on the sleeve.
The police refused and went to take the photo anyhow. They were astonished when Breivik, stripped to his underwear for the shot, with a sudden, grotesque theatricality adopted a proud body-builder’s pose, side on, hand on hip with muscles flexed.
Like Monis, Breivik also claimed a larger political significance to his crime, only this time as Christian crusader. In his 1,500-page online manifesto, he gave himself lofty titles such as “Grand Commander of the Knights Templar”. He had not slaughtered innocents but performed “political executions” of “cultural Marxists”. A policeman asked him: “Who gets to decide who lives or dies?” Breivik’s answer: me.
Malignant narcissists, though devoured by envy and rage, can still idealise powerful figures whose beliefs conveniently justify the destruction of those they denigrate, says Kernberg. This makes them susceptible to taking an ideology such as jihadism to the point of violent extremism. In Terror in the Name of God; Why Religious Militants Kill, Jessica Stern interviewed many terrorists. She found a common theme: “They start out feeling humiliated, enraged that they are viewed by some ‘Other’ as second class. They take on a new identity on behalf of a purported spiritual cause. The weak become strong … rage turns to conviction.” As the world is simplified into good and evil, they feel “spiritually intoxicated”. The “apocalyptic violence” on behalf of their spiritual calling, committed as if in a trance, is addictive, the ultimate high.
In the deeply troubling phenomenon of suburban jihadists, young people with narcissistic traits may also be attracted to what terrorism expert Raphaello Pantucci calls “jihadi cool”. This is a chillingly brilliant marketing exercise via social media: a teenage adventure camp with a Kalashnikov among flowering meadows; a world of belief, purity and struggle; a prefabricated heroic identity to slip into; a tightly woven place in the world; the promise of obliging brides and sex slaves; a secure sense of superiority to the fallen, craven and corrupt world of the impure infidel; a loyal band of brothers; and permission to kill. Above all else, what is promised is significance.
He had found his place in the world, as a suicide bomber
It is that significance that seems to have attracted another sad, lonely, lost boy, Jake Bilardi, now known as “Jihadi Jake”, from a featureless outer suburb on the plains of northern Melbourne. This tender-faced wisp of a lad, with a cloud of long, soft hair, is now memorialised in a famous photo. Flanked by two burly jihadists, Bilardi’s pale, skinny arms hold on to an oversize Kalashnikov.
From an affluent atheist background, Bilardi was an isolated loner. His search for meaning followed his parents’ divorce, when he lost all contact with his father, then lost his mother to cancer. He was a disturbed boy with mental health issues that his father admitted were never addressed. Young Jake craved attention, had wild rages and attacked his parents with weapons such as scissors. A highly intelligent maths whizz, he found school life an agonising social humiliation. He was horribly bullied and friendless. Capsized emotionally by the death of his mother, he converted to Islam.
Bilardi wrote a political blog. His extremism grew. So did his paranoia. One post tells how, sitting in his living room, he looked at his brothers and thought they might kill him. He dropped out of school and isolated himself, but, via the internet, developed new attachments, to a world far away, to an ideal of earthly perfection, the caliphate run by Isis.
Ideology has the capacity to make a butterfly out of a grub. Bilardi managed to find moral perfection in beheadings, sexual slavery and attacks on priceless artefacts from the past. In Isis he would find true “brothers” who would value him, whom he could impress with his willingness to die, such as the burly jihadists flanking him in that photograph.
In Bilardi’s manifesto, From Melbourne to Ramadi, Australia was condemned as “a land full of such filth and corruption that no one in their right mind could live there without a craving to let some heads roll”. A picture of people shopping is captioned: “The talking pigs of Melbourne, Australia, in their sty …” Dehumanised as pigs, his fellow Australians could be slaughtered. Stockpiled in his Craigieburn home were the ingredients for a bomb. His manifesto told of plan B: “Launching a string of bombings across Melbourne, targeting foreign consulates and political/military targets, as well as grenade and knife attacks on shopping centres and cafes and culminating with myself detonating a belt of explosives amongst the Kuffar.”
This painfully shy, anxious boy, rejected, taunted and bullied, finally felt he had found his place in the world, part of a glorious struggle that promised him a heroic identity and spiritual immortality as a suicide bomber in Iraq. He described driving into Aleppo, and feeling utterly elated when he saw the Isis black flag flying high. After his death, he was no longer invisible, but infamous, acquiring another kind of immortality.
Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism of how the “society of the spectacle” encourages the desire to have one’s life recorded and transmitted to an unseen audience: “The prevailing conditions thus brought out narcissistic personality traits that were present in everyone.”
And especially, one might add, in mass killers and jihadists. Fame is not just about being known. It is a fast route to high status and social dominance. Fame delivers the illusion that you matter more than other people. One of the Charlie Hebdokillers, Cherif Kouachi, originally sought to escape his life of petty crime and poverty by becoming a famous rapper. He sought a very western form of fame, and failed, before gaining it by launching an attack on the west.
Fame played a part too for Mohammed Emwazi, the British man now known as “Jihadi John”. Formerly an obscure London lad with modest prospects, he is now a new human type, the celebrity beheader. Stern says: “Some experience a different kind of high: they like weapons and they like to kill, and they would do so for almost any reason.” The only real clue we have to the mystery of Emwazi is his violent, rage-filled outbursts as a youngster. On joining Isis, however, the sadism that Kernberg warns of in malignant narcissism becomes clear, in the evident pleasure with which he kills aid workers and journalists, and in the exultant torture he metes out beforehand. “Feel it? Cold, isn’t it?” Emwazi said to freed Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, holding a blade to his neck. “Can you imagine the pain you’ll feel when it cuts?” He describes in horrific detail each stage of the beheading; “I’ve seen it before, you all squirm like animals, like pigs. The third blow will take off your head. I’d put it on your back.”
As justly reviled as he is by many, Emwazi is idolised by Isis recruits as the personification of jihadi cool. Such killers get fans. Breivik complains from prison about the “human rights abuses” of being given old versions of PlayStation, while his fans send him his favourite perfume, Chanel Egoiste, also the favourite brand of Isis commander Abou Bilel. Such killers may speak as if they are acting piously under the eye of an all-powerful God, but they actually act with a sharp, greedy eye for their audience of human peers. Getting a narcissistic hit of attention is indissolubly part of what Jessica Stern and JM Berger, authors of new book Isis: The State of Terror call the appeal of “the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all the elements that make it so alluring and so addictive purified into a crystallised form.” Understanding that truth, repugnant as it is, will have to be a part of any effective programme of counter-terrorism.