Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The psychology of a deluded dictator

I was deeply disturbed, and at times horrified, by Muammar Gaddafi’s defiant speech yesterday. My ten years’ experience in working in mental health further reinforced my fears that this unstable despot is not bound by moral boundaries and may well do anything to cling on to power.

Stephen Fry tweeted that “Gaddafi appears to have separated himself from any semblance of reality, which would be funny if it didn't mean slaughter, pain and horror”. SNP Blogger Lallands Peat Worrier also reflected that “this is an object lesson in fucknuttery. A technical term...” Not a term I would generally have used in my professional life but I fully endorse the sentiment.

His speech was disturbing on many levels and was even more chilling than his son’s threat to “fight to the last bullet”. During a one hour rant, he claimed he will go down fighting and “die a martyr”. His martyr complex is concerning enough. But his speech was also littered with faintly veiled threats: the people of Benghazi were warned “just wait until the police return to restore order”, while he also promised that" any use of force against the authority of the state shall be punished by death". He denied that violence had broken out yet, which presumably means that, in his own mind, the bloodshed the world is witnessing on You Tube is simply the product of an Islamic conspiracy.

Gaddafi clearly believes his own rhetoric, and lacks any insight into either the new political reality or his own psychological instability. Presumably, Gaddafi’s speech was intended to signal defiance and aimed at intimidating his opponents, but it unlikely to have had that effect. Instead, he looks like a joke figure, convinced of his own worth to the very people who are calling for his deposition. He is erratic, bizarre, irrational and evidently unstable – and only slightly less paranoid than King Herod. All this would normally inspire sympathy were it not for the fact that his murderous intentions reflect those of the Biblical king.

He expressed paranoid delusions about his enemies who he described as "rats who have taken tablets" or "agents of Bin Laden". America, the UK and the BBC were enemies who were undermining Libya from outside. Foreign powers, he claimed, were attempting to poison him. There was little coherence to his disjointed ramblings – but his brutal motivations were clear. "Your children will die" he threatened chillingly. Enemies of the state deserve the death penalty, he claimed. Gaddafi also appears to have a god complex, thinking himself to be semi-divine. He indulged in religious imagery to make his threats, condemning his opponents to hell and damnation.

Gaddafi considers himself to be above the rest of humanity, being God's chosen leader for Libya. Referring to himself in the third person (a classic symptom of some psychotic disorders), he reinforced the concept of his being a semi-divine leader, stating that “Gaddafi is the glory” and that he could not resign but would continue to lead Libya "until the last drop of my blood with the Libyan people is behind me". Perhaps that isn’t too long in the offing. His delusions of personal significance were further evidenced in his apparent belief that he has a personal following across the Arab world and would be able to "call on millions from one desert to another to cleanse Libya" - whether he has even a modicum of respect outside Libya is an issue of some debate.

Gaddafi explained that Libya is a world leader. “No-one can stop this historic march” he roared. On that count at least I hope he is right. The Libyan people have started a brave march towards democracy and it is vital for his country that Gaddafi exits – soon.

It is difficult to know who Gaddafi thought he was communicating with during his hour-long shout at a TV camera. The outside world was not only unimpressed but horrified at the rhetoric of hate and violence. The protesters are unlikely to have been intimidated; in fact, the speech will likely have stiffened their resolve. His own “allies” in government are now alienating him, expressing fears of “genocide”. He now looks increasingly isolated and little more than an Erich Honecker-type figure, an out-of-touch old man desperately clinging on to power.

Gaddafi's speech offered the world a curious insight into the psychological make-up of this most eccentric of dictators. His mental health is becoming increasingly fragile and any semblance of statesmanship Gaddafi had gained in recent years has evaporated in the last few days. Here is a man whose self-delusion is fuelling a dangerous paranoia and whose actions are determined by irrational responses rather than reason. At times during his lengthy speech he appeared thought disordered, his speech pressured. But what is most concerning is that Gaddafi has limited or no insight into his psychological condition and - if allowed - would act on his delusions and paranoia with catastrophic effect.

In conclusion, Gaddafi is a megalomaniac who is essentially suffering from - amongst other things - an extreme narcissism. Some of his more grandiose delusions mean that he is living in isolation from reality, in a parallel universe in which the self takes precedence over his obligations to his people. There is no moral or ethical dimension to his thinking, just a belief in the grandiose self and his God-ordained purpose. He is completely incapable of expressing empathy or compassion for others, and probably equally unable to experience ordinary human feelings.

As such, his psychology is perhaps not too different from other historical dictators, such as Ferdinand Marcos or Nicolae Ceausescu. Where he differs is in his expressed wish to act on his delusions so brutally.

On 23rd January, I blogged on the issue of the Tunisian revolution’s potential to inspire democratic protest across North Africa: “I for one would not object too strongly with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffering the same fate as Ben Ali.” I am delighted that the popular move towards democracy appears now to have claimed two of these “strongmen”, but our immediate concern must be with the Libyan people, who are not safe from Gaddafi’s threats so long as he remains in power.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya is a tribal country and Gaddafi retains some support, which might convince him to fight on. Psychopathic leaders need their followers and as long as there remain some devotees, his delusions will be reinforced and he will not appreciate the weak position he is in. But any resistance will ultimately be futile and I can see no way back for Gaddafi. He’s lost control of his country as well as his grip on reality. However, he’s unlikely to go as peacefully as either Ali or Mubarak and the fear is that he may indulge in one final campaign of bloodshed.

Gaddafi may have indicated that he "will fight until the very end." Libyan people have responded: "so will we." While Gaddafi’s demise is to be welcomed, I hope it is not at the cost of more life.

Many questions about Libya's future remain unanswered, but it is certainly true that Gaddafi's demise has been in part due to his flawed psychology. Support for him is rapidly disappearing; I strongly believe that he will be gone before the end of the week and I hope that his murderous and threatening rant will prove to be just that and nothing more.

There must be a role for the international community in supporting Libyans to force Gaddafi from power in such a way as to avoid unnecessary violence. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where it was right to leave the future of those respective countries to their people to decide, there must be some level of intervention in Libya. A stand has to be taken against Gaddafi’s aggression; we can not abandon Libyans to the threats of this unstable dictator. We are not dealing with a rational human being, but an increasingly paranoid and deluded murderer whose scope for committing horrific acts of “retribution” are boundless. Outside help might also be useful in assisting the transfer to democracy in a country with little in the way of a democratic heritage or civil society, although the nature of any new democracy and the process itself must be left to the will of Libyans. There is a difference between assistance (which we should offer) and interference (which should be avoided).

The tide of revolution spreading across North Africa and the Arab world is encouraging - and not only because it is toppling dictators at will. It is also disproving the common misconception upon which Western foreign policy has been based: that the options for government in the Arab world were either autocracy or Islamism. No-one has previously taken the concept of democracy in the Middle East seriously, including those who ostensibly championed it. Whatever happens now, one thing is for sure: the conventional wisdom that democracy and Arabs do not go together has been shattered forever. Middle Eastern governments and the relationships they have with their people and the rest of the world will never again be the same. The world has changed, thanks to the courage and audacity of the pro-democracy revolutionaries.


Janine said...

Enjoyed reading it....I wonder where Gaddafi would fit on the new DSM-V? It seems he has so many psychological symptoms from so many pathologies....

Andrew said...

Well, it's not for me to make a diagnosis - I never progressed beyond a medical student! It would be interesting to see where psychiatrists would place him on the new diagnosis scale; there's definitely something pathological going on.

Anonymous said...

I would realy like for the people to capture him alive we have not seen the last of his resume. I am also more interested in his international dealings and troubles he instigated worldwide. The Libyans will prevail and will enjoy creating this new country democratic and hand made. Thank you

Andrew said...

I hope he is captured alive, Muhammad. But I suspect when he sees the game is up he may well kill himself.

His international dealings deserve to be examined in some detail - I may write about these shortly, but I imagine they have been detailed elsewhere on the internet.

I share your belief that Libyans will prevail!

proberts1962 said...

Very interesting. You mentioned Ceaucescu and Marcos, maybe there is such a thing as dictator syndrome! You don't think he has a narcissistic personality disorder do you?

Andrew said...

@proberts1962 A "dictator syndrome"? An interesting and thought provoking concept.

As for the narcissistic PD...well, it's a distinct possibility. But NPD is a very difficult thing to diagnose properly - and I'd prefer not to conjecture as to how Gaddafi's "problem" should be labelled. But I agree that such a diagnosis would be in keeping with his presentation.

I should point out that I've not attempted to put together a full psychological profile of Gaddafi. This is after all a political blog, not an academic essay. I've simply noted that his ranting, incoherent speech last week reveals certain things about his psychology and mental stability - and underlines the destructive potential of his paranoid delusions should he continue in power.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mohammad that Gaddafi's international dealings are of real interest...just wondered what you make of ideas that Gaddafi himself was involved in authorising the Lockerbie bombing...also what are your views on the Megrahi release?

Andrew said...

In regards al-Megrahi - I don't have a "position" as such.

Part of the reason for this is that I actually know personally someone whose sister was killed in the Lockerbie bombing. I think it's easy for victims to be forgotten when the emphasis is either on the perpetrator of the crime, or on the political fallout.

I thought it was very wrong to have made a positical football out of the release of al-Megrahi. Iain Gray was out of order attempting to make political capital from the Scottish government's decision.

I know there are many people (including victims' families) who were never entirely convinced that al-Megrahi's conviction was safe. Ultimately, Kenny MacAskill made a decision based on what he perceived were the interests of justice (al-Megrahi would have appealed against his conviction soon in any case). Whether al-Megrahi was convicted rightly or wrongly, I think it is reasonable to suppose that the Lockerbie bomber acted with approval from above - but I couldn't talk about Gaddafi's personal involvement because I simply don't know.

I agree that it's possible, even likely that the order came from Gaddafi. But we simply don't know for sure. If there's any evidence linking him directly to Lockerbie then I hope he doesn't evade justice.

Andrew said...

In an interview with the BBC's Jeremy Bowen, Gaddafi's lack of concern for his people and his delusional beliefs are evident - while claiming he is "loved" by Libyans (apart from those who have been given drugs by al-Qaeda) he appears unable to feel any of the normal feelings a leader might be expected to have towards his people. Instead, he simply insists they are all ready to die to protect him.

This is just a short extract from the interview which will be shown on UK TV tonight, but it is in itself interesting and revealing:

Anonymous said...

Watched the interview, he looks completely out of touch with reality. have you seen this?

Anonymous said...

Personality disorder - defintely. Probably schizotypal rather than narcissistic, though.

Andrew said...

Schizotypal personality disorder is even more plausible than narcissistic personality disorder as a potential diagnosis in Gaddafi's case. But he defies easy categorisation and his presentation is consistent with both of these conditions as well as displaying symptoms of many others.

It is interesting to see that this post has been recommended here:

Anonymous said...

... Moreover, "the crazy colonel" has a formally educated son, with a disputed PhD, Saif, who appears to enable his father's mental illness. An associate of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's told the press, "he is psychotic."