Gaming out lunatics–Charles Manson and Kim Jong-un: The problems of assessing ‘madness’

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

 –Polonius in Hamlet, Act II Scene II

 In the late 1960s, Vincent Bugliosi, one of modern America’s foremost legal minds, found himself in a very difficult position. He had been assigned to prosecute the Tate-La Bianca murder cases, occurring in August 1969, when a series of ritualistic slayings in Los Angeles had terrified the whole of the United States, due to both the frenzy of the murders as well as the seeming randomness of the crimes.

Through good, old-fashioned detective work, 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 diabolical bidding.

Why had he done so and 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 Manson, who was the ringleader of the whole horrendous plot. The good news was that over time Bugliosi hit upon Manson’s reasoning; the bad news was that it seemed—on its surface—so mind-bogglingly crazy that colleagues of the prosecutor urged him to discard it, as no normal person was likely to believe him.


Political risk analysts have always had a very hard time getting past this wholly understandable first analytical reaction toward craziness, as can be seen in the present North Korean crisis. It is far from an academic point as to whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad; rather it is the heart of the matter. The Trump administration has been rhetorically unequivocal in that it says it is not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the US with nuclear weapons. The basic reason for this—as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has made clear—is the White House believes 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 US. This basic fact explains why nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War. On the other hand, dealing with a lunatic who does not care what happens to himself personally means the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim Jong-un is such a madman he must then be taken out, as his regime could kill millions without worrying about the consequences.

But 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 behaviour at first glance seems to be wholly irrational. However, more often than not, irrational behaviour merely amounts to an ideology that—while it may be radically different than that of the political risk analyst—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.


Indeed, 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.

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.

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.

Bugliosi was convinced that it was only within this barely-believable philosophical context that the murders could be assessed. The slayings were a crucial part of Manson’s plan to trigger Helter Skelter. By committing a series of brutal, seemingly senseless crimes against members of White society, the cult leader became convinced that eventually radical African-American movements, such as the Black Panthers, would be blamed for the outrage, which would lead to fighting in the streets.

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 sick 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.

Because he was unafraid to follow Manson’s twisted philosophy analytically wherever it took him, because he got beyond the obvious fact that Helter Skelter was patently ‘crazy’, Vincent Bugliosi discovered the motive that tied mass murderer Charles Manson to his crimes. Despite heavy odds, Bugliosi succeeded in convicting all the defendants, crucially including Manson. The first-rate analytical skills of Vincent Bugliosi underline a key point for political risk analysts. Just because a philosophy seems to be demented in your eyes, emphatically does not mean such a warped ideology doesn’t explain the key link between another’s thought and their actions.


Beyond this, that Shakespearean phrase, ‘There’s method to their madness’, is the key lesson for political risk analysts to keep in mind in successfully gaming out lunatics, those whose apparently irrational behaviour makes them seem at first glance patently unable to be studied and assessed. For there is almost always an internal logic to any serious foreign policy actor, however diabolical or seemingly random.

Risk analysts must first get beyond the simple immediate–and very human–impulse of writing off such players on the international scene as being incapable of assessment, study their ideology (no matter how twisted) and then treat them as they would any other player on the chessboard: what are their interests, what do they want, how are they prepared to get it, what is their likely strategy?

But if the seemingly irrational are often the hardest actors for political risk analysts to read, there is one more intellectual step we have to take if we are to fully go through the looking glass in dealing with them. On the international scene, the irrational are almost always politically underrated, in their strangeness being subconsciously viewed as inherently incapable of actually succeeding on the foreign policy stage.

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 analysed?

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 program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history. A North Korea in possession of such weapons would have a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US 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.

The high-odds, successful prosecution of Charles Manson by Vincent Bugliosi underlines the vital need to game out lunatics, as there is almost always method to their madness. We would do well to remember this in dealing with the ‘madness’ of Kim Jong-un.

Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, February 17, 2018

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April. He lives in Milan, Italy.