Gaming Out Lunatics — Charles Manson and Kim Jong-un: The Problems of Assessing “Madness”

Vincent Bugliosi, one of modern America’s foremost legal minds, found himself in a very difficult position when he prosecuted the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murder cases, a series of ritualistic slayings in Los Angeles.

Bugliosi had rightly fastened upon Charles Manson and his so-called “Family” as the perpetrators, a hippie death-cult that believed that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But there was a major practical problem with prosecuting Manson; he had personally killed no one. Instead, he had ordered others to do his bidding.

Why had the Family followed him? Bugliosi knew that if he didn’t address the crucial issue of motive, there was simply no real case against the ringleader. Bugliosi formulated a theory to explain Manson’s reasoning, but it seemed so crazy that colleagues of the prosecutor urged him to discard it, as no normal person was likely to believe him. But what he came up with then, has a lot to teach us about geopolitics now.


Is Kim Jong-un insane? This is no academic matter. The Trump administration has signalled it believes that — as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has made clear — Kim is “crazy,” and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, as were the murderous Mao and Stalin during the Cold War.

They were both surely monsters of the first order, but were rational in the sense that they personally did not want to die in a nuclear exchange with the U.S. This is why nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War. Dealing with a lunatic who does not care what happens to himself personally means the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. So is Kim Jong-un insane, or as Shakespeare put it so well, is there method to his madness?

Political risk analysts down the ages have had a terrible time in assessing what they might term “lunatics,” those whose behavior at first glance seems to be wholly irrational. However, more often then not, irrational behaviour merely amounts to a strange and alien ideology, but one that still contains an internal logic, complete with discernible overarching goals, tactical gambits, and a strategic battle plan.

We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily by lazily saying that our foes are crazy and therefore don’t need to be studied, because their belief systems are different (and admittedly often wildly alien) to our own. Such a limp intellectual reaction merely deprives political risk analysts of the incentive to do what they ought to, to dig deeper in understanding what at first glance seems deceptively random.


When the Los Angeles police were initially made aware of Manson’s philosophy of “Helter Skelter,” they replied as all poor political risk analysts would, “Ah, Charlie’s a madman; we’re not interested in all that.” But they should have been. For Manson’s philosophy of Helter Skelter provides the crucial link explaining why the murders came about, making sense of what the ancient Greeks would describe as praxis, the unity of thought and action.

Helter Skelter was to be the last war on the face of the earth, an end time’s racial conflict between African-Americans and whites, wherein the African-American minority would rise up and eviscerate formerly dominant white society in America. But Manson, an avowed racist, believed such a wildly improbable outcome would redound to his own personal benefit. The only white Americans to survive would be his Family, who by then would have moved to the inhospitable confines of Death Valley to escape the fighting. As Manson believed African-Americans were incapable of running anything, after a period of chaos, he prophesied that they instead would turn to him to manage things, with the Family ultimately coming to rule the world. You can see why Bugliosi was hesitant to put this fantastical thinking forward as the primary motive for the crimes.

Because of their shared philosophy — no matter how far out — otherwise normal people had been motivated to savagely kill at Manson’s bidding. Successfully gaming out lunatics involves analysts suspending their own disbelief, intellectually following others’ philosophies wherever they lead. For only by doing this can praxis be gotten at, and sound analytical judgements arrived at.

Bugliosi contended that Manson ordered the murders, and that his Helter Skelter philosophy directly led to the killings, as it was designed to ignite the apocalyptic race war itself. Manson’s philosophy, plus his total control over the Family, made them willing participants in his homicidal rampage. Manson’s adherents were yearning to do anything he asked, however “crazy” it might seem to normal eyes. Despite heavy odds, Bugliosi succeeded in convicting all the defendants, crucially including Manson.

The analytical skills of Vincent Bugliosi underline a key lesson of politics. Just because a philosophy seems to be demented in your eyes, it may explain the key link between thought and action, which has a rationality of its own.


The irrational are almost always politically underrated, in their strangeness being subconsciously viewed as inherently incapable of actually succeeding on the foreign policy stage. But crazy leaders must be treated like any other player on the chessboard, and the same questions must be asked: what are their interests, what do they want, how are they prepared to get it, what is their likely strategy?

While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain — between poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin nerve gas and executing his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery — are his bloodthirsty actions so irrational they cannot be analyzed?

Far from it. While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined sense of self-preservation: he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history. A North Korea in possession of such weapons can ward off the oft-stated U.S. desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, both of whom relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and killed.

Kim Jong-un then seems to be merely what several local Asian scholars have already said of him: a rational actor operating within the context of a totalitarian system. Ruthless, yes, perhaps even wicked, but far from crazy. If this is true, then Kim is “rational” in the manner Stalin and Mao were, despite their undoubted evil. And in this rational desire for self-preservation, it would seem nuclear deterrence should not be so quickly discarded as an American strategy for dealing with the North Korean regime.