If you’ve been anywhere close to a television lately, you’ve probably seen news of the bloody revolution underway in Libya. For decades, that country has been ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled Moammar Qaddafi or Gadhafi ), and for decades, his Star-Trek-inspired wardrobe and rhetorical hyperbole have raised speculation that he’s been mentally-unstable.
Amid this popular movement to finally oust Gaddafi, we’re getting first-hand reports from defectors of years of crazy behavior (running the gamut from random death warrants to wild orgies) behind the scenes in Libya’s government. We’re also hearing from amateur reporters inside Libya that this existential crisis may have pushed Gaddafi over the proverbial edge (citing, for example, Gaddafi’s appearance on Libyan television this week in which he alleged that his enemies fomented the revolution by somehow drugging the Libyan people with “ecstasy,” the street name for the hallucinogenic stimulant methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA).
So, has Gaddafi just been partying with Charlie Sheen, or is he truly insane? Well, if he’s insane, it certainly wouldn’t be a first. History is replete with apparently-insane tyrants. Roman Emperor Caligula inflicted unspeakable horrors on his people before his own guards finally killed him. Russian Czar Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) is another infamous exemplar. In more-recent history, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein committed crimes against humanity for reasons (or lack thereof) that many have labeled “insane.” In fact, Gaddafi’s not even the only current national leader who’s arguably “insane.” North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and Iran’s Mahmoud Amadinejad are candidates as well.
But the question of Gaddafi’s sanity is more complicated than it may seem when you first hear Gaddafi tell Libyans to “sing, dance, and be happy” as his loyalists gun them down, just like it can get a little complicated when I explain how a mentally-ill criminal here in the U.S. still can be held totally responsible for his/her criminal behavior. The presence of mental illness often does not imply the absence of awareness of the nature and the wrongfulness of one’s actions. If you look back through history, you can find plenty of monarchs, like King George III of England and King Ludwig of Bavaria to name just two, who apparently suffered from mental illness and therefore couldn’t effectively lead their nations but didn’t commit the kinds of atrocities that Caligula and Ivan the Terrible did. The reigns of such monarchs seldom lasted long after their symptoms became acute, often being replaced (in practice if not officially) fairly quickly by successors or stand-ins (effectively guardians or “regents”).
Caligula, Ivan IV, Hitler, Hussein, and Gaddafi, however, continued to lead their nations for years after they started behaving erratically, putting them in a somewhat-different category. I certainly wouldn’t describe them as mentally-healthy, but their minds apparently still were working well enough to enable them to hold onto power and run their governments for sustained periods of time. And, in Hitler’s, Hussein’s, and Gaddafi’s cases, they had to be quite calculating to become leaders of nations in the first place (Caligula and Ivan IV at least were born into their positions). Therefore, psychologically-speaking, these guys look less like pure “psychos” and more like “psychopaths.”
Psychopaths are people who are fully aware of what they’re doing, have the ability to know that it’s wrong (if they give it any thought — they often have average-to-high intelligence, but they may choose not to give it any thought and to act on emotion instead), and yet choose to do it anyway because they take pleasure in asserting power over, and inflicting pain upon, innocent others. Psychopaths can and often do simultaneously suffer from mental illness, but if they do, the mental illness generally does not absolve them of personal responsibility for their actions.
Gaddafi seems like he may fit that latter profile — a guy who’s had some psychosis going on for a long time (e.g. paranoid and grandiose delusions, the latter sometimes called “megalomania”), perhaps increasing under the stress of this existential crisis, but whose mind has nevertheless been functional enough for him both to seize and maintain decades-long control of Libya’s government and to be held fully responsible for the actions that he’s taken in that time.