Gaddafi 311 reuters.
(photo credit: reuters)
LONDON - It may have become acceptable to question Muammar Gaddafi's state of mind but it's a futile exercise to try to predict his behavior.
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Psychiatrists and mental health experts say they are often called upon to diagnose from afar -- a call driven by society's desire to get to grips with bad situations.
Yet whether the subjects are dictators or "brotherly leaders", as Libya's leader portrays himself, the minds of men like Gaddafi are unique and therefore uniquely unpredictable.
"What people try to do is to achieve some kind of typology," said Nigel
Eastman, a professor of psychiatry at St George's, University of London.
"When individuals behave outside of what we think of as our normal box,
in ways that threaten or harm others, we find it so incredible that we
need to try to find a way of understanding it."
"But the leap from feeling we need to understand them to achieving a valid understanding is an impossible leap."
Few would dispute that Gaddafi's behaviour has at times gone beyond normal.
At least a thousand people are thought to have been killed in his
attempts to crush a popular revolt and he has accused the protesters who
rose up against him of being fueled by milk and Nescafe spiked with
His penchant for female bodyguards and Beduin tents is eye catching, but
his readiness to execute his opponents shifts that quirkiness into an
extreme behavior bracket.
"Clearly he is a very strange and evil man," Eastman said.
The United States once branded Gaddafi a "mad dog" for his support of
militant groups worldwide and on the streets of opposition stronghold
Benghazi there is currently no shortage of people calling him "crazy" or
Some of those who have recently been closest to him now also describe him as a "madman".
Yet in interviews with the BBC and ABC this week, some commentators said
the 68-year-old Libyan leader appeared quite lucid. On Libyan TV on
Wednesday he was pictured surrounded by supporters chanting: "You will
remain great".END GAME
Libyan Deputy UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi last week predicted Gaddafi
would either die fighting or commit suicide rather than be forced out
of power. Since he has few other options, analysts suggest this may well
Kingsley Norton, an expert on personality disorders at the West London
Mental Health Trust (WLMHT), said calmness can sometimes be a sign that
someone is certain about the end game.
"People under pressure...become apparently calm when they have some
inner certainty about their own fate, which might derive from
deeply-held religious belief or from the fact they have a 'plan B', such
as suicide or escape to safe haven," he said.
Michael Phelan, a WLMHT consultant psychiatrist, said that after 41
years in absolute power, surrounded by people who don't dissent, it's
hardly surprising if Gaddafi thinks he is infallible.
Yet Phelan and others say the tendency to use mental health labels says
more about society's need to find an explanation for certain behavior
than about the perpetrators themselves.
"It's a way of giving ourselves the comfort that we think we know what
is going on," said Peter Byrne, director of public education at
Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists. "But the truth is that in
terms of local, national or international politics, we really don't know
what's going on."
Some mental health experts worry that pinning pseudo-psychological
labels on leaders like Gaddafi can undermine the seriousness of their
actions, and is also detrimental to genuine sufferers of mental illness.
"You see people throwing these diagnoses around based on a speech or a
way of behavior, but all that does is add to the stigma of mental
health," said Phelan.
"If someone does something really heroic, something really irrational
that saved lives, you rarely see them described as mad. It's always the
bad things that are labeled as being mad."
And as for whether any attempts at psychological analysis help predict what might happen next? Slim chance.
Even when there is firm, clinical evidence that someone is mentally
disordered, it is extremely difficult to predict how they might react,
especially to extreme circumstances.
"(In such a situation) the only thing that might predict what's going to
happen is how that person has behaved before," said Phelan. "Past
behavior tends to predict the future, and I don't think putting a
psychiatric label on it would help in any way."