Translated from the original German (Ein schwarzer Engel des Zufalls)
By Oehmke, Philipp und Schmitter, Elke
Literature professor Manfred Schneider talks about the rationality and irrationality of killers, the paranoid psyche of western society, and its search for explanation
SPIEGEL: Herr Schneider, on 8th January 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, and killed six other people at point blank range. And while the world agonises for an explanation, it is possible to find explained in your recent book, Das Attentat, that an assassin such as Loughner isn’t actually irrational, rather the product of hyperrationality. What do you mean by that?
Schneider: Every assassin is an acute observer and interpreter of signals and events. For him, nothing happens by chance; he scans the world for evil doings. He sees conspiracies everywhere. The result appears to us to be crazy and insane. However, at the same time it is precisely logic and reason running in overdrive, that lead to these paranoid conclusions. Paranoia isn’t a form of irrationality, but one of hyperrationality. Loughner is a typical example of this.
SPIEGEL: As if he had read your book.
Schneider: Yes, almost.
SPIEGEL: What is so typical about him?
Schneider: Firstly, subjectively, Loughner acted highly ethically. The paranoiac rescues the world from a threat. He disconnects his system of interpretation from everything else and creates inside this system a sense of order, which is no longer worrying for him. Secondly, Loughner left behind messages, which is always part of a rational assassination plan. We’re clearly dealing with a very thoroughly considered, well-planned mission. Thirdly, it was a political action. Insanity, which has uncountable forms of expression, takes on a political form in would-be assassins. Think about the video message in which he talked about the gold standard and currencies. These are elementary symbols of western society, which he wants to renew or exchange. It’s crazy, but it is an attempt to make contact with those in power.
SPIEGEL: What if Loughner hadn’t talked about gold and currencies, but instead about a new human being with three arms and four legs? Where does pure insanity start?
Schneider: With gibberish. When the only thing left is utter psychobabble. That’s one boundary. The other is that the fundament of paranoia is power. Paranoia isn’t a preoccupation with an illusion, as in the example you just gave.
SPIEGEL: At a public meeting in 2007, Loughner asked Congresswoman Giffords if she knew “why words mean what they mean”. Strangely, she apparently answered him in Spanish. Her inadequate response to his question is supposed to have deeply embittered Loughner.
Schneider: This fundamental doubt about our system is a consistently encountered symptom. The former soldier Denis Lortie, who stormed the Québec Parliament on 8th May, 1984, and arbitrarily opened fire on anything that moved, said in his messages before the event: “I want to destroy everything that wants to destroy language.” And Loughner is recorded to have said: “the government is controlling grammar.”
SPIEGEL: Is paranoia always destructive?
Schneider: Not necessarily. Consider the fabled Sherlock Holmes: he decyphers random signals better than anyone else, and is able to form the most shrewd suspicions from them. A scrap of paper here, a pile of cigar ash there. A class A paranoiac! But always acting for good.
SPIEGEL: But there is a difference. Holmes always draws the right conclusions.
Schneider: Loughner thought the same. But paranoiacs are missing self-reflection, the ability to verify. In terms of mental ability, this is the decisive flaw. An assassin like Loughner is always a lone warrior, whose suspicion will eventually turn into certainty. Without communicating and comparing with his surroundings, he starts to build a system of explanation for those things which worry and plague him.
SPIEGEL: But is it possible to tell if someone is a Holmes or a Loughner?
Schneider: That can be extremely difficult. For example: intelligence services operate along Holmes’ lines. But Colin Powell’s analysis in front of the UN Security Council in February 2003, according to which mobile biological weapons laboratories were being operated in Iraq, had the same structure as the delusions of Adelheid Streidel, who perilously injured Oskar Lafontaine in 1990 with a knife: she believed there were underground human killing factories in Wackersdorf.
SPIEGEL: The investigating sheriff in Tucson said soon after the attempt, that they were dealing with “a typical troubled individual, a loner.” That’s too simple, isn’t it?
Schneider: Certainly. But I also understand, how such an assumption comes about.
Schneider: The assassin arrives like an arbitrary angel of darkness. Suddenly something inconceivable happens in our rational world, which fits in no model or explanation. That something terrible happens so randomly, however, is especially difficult for us to endure. And so that, in the case of Jared Lee Loughner, we don’t have to concede this, we search for causes which make the event logical and to some extent predictable.
SPIEGEL: For example with the prompt assertion that the assassin had read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.
Schneider: Exactly. But that doesn’t account for anything. Everyone hopes, however, that that’s the case. Loughner is also supposed to have been an adherent of the right-extremist conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller. If that were the case, we’d have found something that reduces the danger. That is to say, we could theoretically have prevented the deed, and we can learn from this failure for the future. As far as the casual spectator is concerned, something went wrong, some security measures must have failed. We need a reason and we need a culprit.
SPIEGEL: What stops us from recognising that the assassination attempt was pure chance, unfathomable, crazy, mindless?
Schneider: We have to look for reasons when something terrible happens. Everything has its reason, that has been the fundamental principle of our rational way of thinking ever since the Enlightenment. And for the explanation as to why someone should attempt an assassination, we call on representatives of evil: Communism, Fascism or the media. These days new representatives are appearing on the horizon, the Muslim enemy as topical paranoid figure or the heinous bankers. Politics can’t afford to say: “Ah well, this financial crisis, it was just a case of hard lines!” No, they must explain that there were certain players who acted one way or another and thus precipitated certain results. Should this argument fail, however, being considered unbelievable, confusion and resentment ensue. If this takes on a paranoid form, then the assumption arises that there must be something working in the background, a bigger, secret plan, a dark conspiracy of the most evil forces. That is what I term paranoid reasoning, delusional but not abnormal reasoning. The assassin is paranoid.
SPIEGEL: Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are accused of being partly responsible for the atmosphere in the USA which led to such an attack. She denies, almost in your sense, the societal paranoid explanation attempt, and says that such attacks reflect only themselves, and are thus random.
Schneider: Trying to turn Palin into a culprit is naturally fallacious. Nevertheless even without drawing paranoid conclusions it is possible to recognise a mesh of coherences surrounding the attack which point towards Loughner. And the Republican fundamental polemic is part of this context. For example, in using the term “mind control”. This is the central paranoid notion of the American right, which assumes that the government controls the thoughts of its citizens through the language and media. Palin’s call to see the attack as an isolated incident, i.e. pure chance, is paradoxical, since she thus suddenly resigns from the system of paranoia – catchword “Mind Control” – that she and the Tea Party have set up.
SPIEGEL: Is it not curious that attacks, paranoia and renunciation of change spread most particularly in those places where voter participation, open information and permeability are of the highest order, i.e. in western democracies?
Schneider: That has been statistically proven. The more open and transparent the system, the stronger the suspicion that something unseen is directing affairs in the background.
SPIEGEL: In which case WikiLeaks would also be a would-be assassin in the sense of paranoid reason?
Schneider: WikiLeaks is driven by the same paranoid craving to throw light into the darkest of corners and wrest every last secret from those in power. This contains its own paradox, since the makers of WikiLeaks also rely on secrecy. They must protect their informants, in doing which they create their own mysteries and bearers of secrets, which may in turn lead to new groupings and new suspicions.
SPIEGEL: Many of the signals and signs in which paranoiacs see meaning noticeably stem from literature and cinema.
Schneider: Would-be assassins are intensive users of media. The media is the source of their suspicion, and at the same time it empowers the fierce hankering to appear in precisely these media. John Hinckley, who in 1981 attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, was a film buff. Hinckley was particularly impressed by Martin Scorsese’s film “Taxi Driver”, and began to stalk the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster. He wrote her poems and sent her numerous letters. Of course these remained unanswered. In a letter to the New York Times, he then wrote the terrible sentence: “The shooting was the greatest love offering in the history of the world.” This insignificant, unhappy, miserable little guy thought in such world historical dimensions. It was his dream to live in the White House with Jodie Foster.
SPIEGEL: And Ronald Reagan was obviously in the way. But doesn’t this would-be assassin negate your theory about paranoid reason? In this case we really can’t talk about reason.
Schneider: Au contraire. He knew the whole history of assassination. He knew about those who went before him and had in some way identified with them. It was clear to him what would happen after his actions, that pictures of him would appear and circle the world in a day. He understood that he would move from the invisible to the visible. And he would soon be with the woman he adored. To move from the world of the invisible to the visible is a strong motivator.
SPIEGEL: Which assassin interests you in particular?
Schneider: Mark David Chapman is one, the attacker who shot John Lennon. Not that I have particular sympathy for him, but his fate is moving and staggering. He believed to have read his own story in J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. Immediately after the attack, while Lennon still lay bleeding in the corridor of the Dakota Building, he grabbed the book and started to read it again. Chapman also spoke from synchronicities, which confirmed his decision to commit the attack.
SPIEGEL: By synchronicity you mean events, which actually have nothing to do with one another, but are nevertheless seen to be connected?
Schneider: The term comes from C. G. Jung and means the correlation of events which are ostensibly purely random. For example, the man who sold the murder weapon to Chapman in Honolulu was called Ono, like Lennon’s wife. When Chapman picked up a magazine on his flight to New York, John Lennon was on the cover. There was a whole series of such details, which he perceived as synchronicities and which rationally strengthened his resolve: it’s obvious, I have my mandate. “I had to do it,” that’s a sentence which often comes from assassins.
SPIEGEL: The prototypical assassin in your analysis is Brutus, one of Caesar’s murderers. Was this man paranoid?
Schneider: Certainly not in the clinical sense. But he, like his co-conspirators, entertained the basic suspicion that Caesar wanted to become king. That would have meant the death of the republic. Sure, Caesar had asserted that he didn’t want the crown, but based on their interpretation of his behaviour, the conspirators drew the opposite conclusion.
SPIEGEL: They followed their suspicions.
Schneider: The would-be assassin is always first an interpreter: of facts and figures, gestures, sentences or silence. Brutus’ case is indeed so interesting and is discussed even today, because there were comprehensible reasons for murdering Caesar. Dante placed him in hell, but Brutus has always had adherents, from Cicero to the present, his reputation is almost immaculate.
SPIEGEL: When does a mistrustful stance or perception turn into paranoia?
Schneider: When all of the non-rational moments which belong to reason fall away, then it becomes pathological. When there is no longer any doubt in thinking, no delay in acting. When empathy is no longer possible and the feeling becomes established, that this or that must be done under any circumstances in order to prevent something terrible: then the person is no longer acting paranoiac but paranoid.
SPIEGEL: But what about someone like Georg Elser, who made out to kill Hitler? You surely can’t talk about paranoia there.
Schneider: In this case it wasn’t the assassin who was paranoid, but his opposite number, Hitler as well as a large proportion of German society. It is certainly possible, Stalinism is evidence enough, that the majority of a group can share an irrational, delusional position.
SPIEGEL: You provide Sherlock Holmes as an example of a so-called healthy paranoia. Is the detective our doctor for acute cases of ‘randomness intolerance’?
Schneider: Definitely. He annihilates randomness, because he can read something logical in otherwise apparently random indices. We delegate our hope to criminal heroes like him, to investigators and policemen, our hope that it is possible to recognise and fight evil.
SPIEGEL: You call the would-be assassin the “arbitrary angel of darkness”. He’s invisible, comes out of the blue like Loughner or the school shooters of Columbine, he wreaks havoc by killing apparently at random.
Schneider: The randomness is routine. Sebastian B., the school shooter from Emsdetten, regarded the Columbine killer Eric Harris as a god, and Dylan Klebold, Harris’ friend, considered himself to be “some kind of god”. None of these young men – the typical killer is male and around 20 years old – was crazy or moronic. Through their actions they played god, they were daemons of fortune. The pretension of being able to decide life and death over any person for a few hours or minutes bestowed upon them the utmost elation. One of the last entries in Dylan Klebold’s diary was “have fun!”
SPIEGEL: And how does this bear with Islamic suicide bombers?
Schneider: It’s different to the Loughners and school shooters, who sense the inescapability of their actions via paranoid thought processes. These radical believers get their decision to act from a third party. They live in the collective paranoid conviction that nothing happens that isn’t God’s will. They also act for a recognisable reason. Their appearance on 11th September, 2001 was for our world the most extreme case of randomness: unpredictable, terrible, simply incomprehensible. But politically, the wish to teach our system a lesson in uncertainty lay behind it. That is something you actually can’t defeat. It’s the attempt to spread paranoia in our society. Their actions, however, have a reason, which we have learned to understand in the meantime. It’s no longer a paranoid incident, and that has an advantage.
Schneider: In the meantime we have developed a pretty good picture of the typical suicide bomber. There’s a phenotype, around which the investigators orient themselves. The attackers of 11th September were unforeseeable, but ten years on their would-be successors no longer have this advantage. We know enough about this type of person to be able to be act to prevent them.
SPIEGEL: Herr Schneider, thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by editors Philipp Oehmke and Elke Schmitter.