Inside the Minds of Paranoiacs 'Loughner Acted, from His Perspective, in a Moral Fashion'
Most saw the Jan. 8 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Arizona as a product of insanity. But assassination researcher Manfred Schneider told SPIEGEL that the presumed gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, did not act irrationally. Rather, his crime resulted from "hyper-rationality."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schneider, on Jan. 8 in Arizona, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head at close range and killed six people. While the world searches for explanations, you write, in your recent book "Das Attentat" ("The Assassination"), that an assassin like Loughner is not crazy but the product of hyper-rationality. What does this mean?
Schneider: Every assassin is a perceptive observer and interpreter of signs and events. For him, nothing happens by accident. He scrutinizes the world in search of hostile intentions, and he imagines conspiracies everywhere. To us, the outcome seems insane. Yet logic and rationality are key components in the paranoid suppositions arrived at by the assassin. Paranoia is not irrationality but hyper-rationality. Loughner is a very typical example.
SPIEGEL: As if he had read your book.
Schneider: Yes, almost.
SPIEGEL: What's so typical?
Schneider: First of all, from his subjective perspective, Loughner acted in an extremely moral fashion. The paranoiac is saving the world from a threat. He disconnects his system of interpretation from everything else and, within this system, reestablishes an order that is no longer frightening for him. Second, Loughner left behind messages, which is always part of a rational assassination plot. It would seem to be an act that he had spent a long time thinking about and preparing. Third, it was a political act. In the assassin, mania, which can be expressed in endless ways, takes on a political form. Think about the video in which he talks about currency and the gold standard. These are fundamental sign systems in Western societies -- and he wants to renew or replace them. That is delusional, but it is an attempt to establish contact with power.
SPIEGEL: What if Loughner hadn't talked about gold and currencies, but about a new human being with three arms and four legs. Where does pure lunacy begin?
Schneider: With gibberish. When all that's left are words that make no sense. Paranoia is focused on power. Paranoia doesn't deal with the kind of phantasm you just mentioned as an example.
SPIEGEL: During a so-called "Congress on Your Corner'' event in 2007, Loughner asked Giffords: "Why do words mean what they mean?" Oddly, she apparently answered him in Spanish. Loughner, it has been reported, was extremely bitter over her inadequate response to his question.
Schneider: This fundamental questioning of our sign systems is a symptom we see again and again. The former soldier Denis Lortie, who stormed the parliament building in Quebec on May 8, 1984 and opened fire, said in a pre-attack message: "I want to destroy everything that wants to destroy language." Loughner, for his part, wrote that the government controls grammar.
SPIEGEL: Is paranoia always destructive?
Schneider: Not necessarily. Just think of Sherlock Holmes. He is better than anyone else at decoding random signs, and he is capable of using them to solidify the most bizarre suspicions. A snippet of paper here, a little pile of cigarette ashes there. He was a great paranoiac, but he was strictly interested in doing good.
SPIEGEL: But there's a difference. Holmes draws the correct conclusions.
Schneider: That was what Loughner thought he was doing, too. But the paranoiac lacks self-reflection and the means of examination. The key deficit here lies at the level of thought. An assassin like Loughner is always a loner, someone for whom suspicion eventually turns into certainty. Without a communicative means of reconciliation with the world around him, he begins to create his own system to explain the things that concern and oppress him.
SPIEGEL: Is it possible to tell whether a paranoiac is a Holmes or a Loughner?
Schneider: Sometimes it's extremely difficult. For example, intelligence agencies also apply Holmes's method. But the analysis that then US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, which concluded that there were mobile biological weapons laboratories in Iraq, was based on the same structure as the lunacy of Adelheid Streidel, who critically injured (German politician) Oskar Lafontaine with a knife in 1990. She believed that there were underground factories in (the Bavarian town of) Wackersdorf, where people were being killed.
SPIEGEL: Soon after the attack, the sheriff conducting the investigation in Tucson characterized Loughner as a "typical troubled individual who's a loner." This is too simple, isn't it?
Schneider: Indeed. But I also understand how such an assumption comes about.
Schneider: The killer walks onto the stage like a black angel of chance. Suddenly, in our rational world, something incomprehensible happens that doesn't fit into any system of explanation. That something this horrible happens by pure coincidence is, however, particularly difficult for us to bear. So, as in the case of Jared Lee Loughner, we search for reasons that make the crime logical and, to a certain extent, foreseeable.
SPIEGEL: Such as the claim -- made soon after the incident -- that the killer had read Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
Schneider: Exactly. There isn't even any evidence to that effect, and yet everyone hopes that it's true. Loughner was also said to have been a follower of the extreme right-wing conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller. Were that the case, we would have found something that allows us to diminish the dangerous aspect of the case. It would mean that, in theory, we could have prevented the crime -- and that our failure to have done so offers lessons for the future. In the eye of the beholder, something went wrong; a security system must have failed. We need a reason and a guilty party.
SPIEGEL: What prevents us from admitting that the assassination was pure chance -- pointless, crazy and senseless?
Schneider: We have to look for reasons when something horrible happens to us. Every phenomenon has an explanation. This is the basis of our way of thinking since the Enlightenment. In the search for an explanation as to why someone commits an assassination, we look to archetypes of evil: communism, fascism or the media, for example. Now, new archetypes are appearing on the horizon, such as the Muslim enemy as a current paranoiac figure, or the nefarious banker. Politicians can't exactly say: "Well, this financial crisis was just a huge stroke of bad luck." Instead, they have to explain that there are certain agents that acted in one way or another, causing certain events to happen as a result. But if this claim fails to hit home -- should it not be seen as credible -- extreme vexation results. Should that vexation take paranoiac form, beliefs will arise that there must have been something else going on in the background: a huge, secret plan, a dark conspiracy of evil forces. I call this paranoiac reason, a delusional but not pathological form of reason. Paranoid is the assassin.
SPIEGEL: Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been accused of being partially responsible for a climate in the United States that can lead to such an incident. But Palin, using arguments similar to yours, rejects the larger society's paranoiac attempt to find an explanation and says that such acts stand on their own -- and are therefore random.
Schneider: Of course, it's absurd to assign the blame to Palin. But even without drawing paranoiac conclusions, one can immediately recognize a web of relationships into which the assassination fits and to which Loughner, the killer, consciously refers. And the fundamentalist Republic polemic is part of this context. Take, for example, the use of the term "mind control." This is the central, paranoiac concept of the American right, which assumes that the government controls the thoughts of citizens through language and the media. It's paradoxical for Palin to demand that we see the killings as an isolated incident, that is, a chance event. In doing so, she is suddenly abandoning the system of paranoia, with its accusations of mind control, that she and the Tea Party were more or less complicit in creating.
SPIEGEL: Isn't it odd that assassinations, paranoia and the denial of chance tend to proliferate in the places where public participation, information and transparency are paramount, that is, in the Western democracies?
- Part 1: 'Loughner Acted, from His Perspective, in a Moral Fashion'
- Part 2: 'I Had to Do It Is a Sentence One Often Hears from Assassins'