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Photo Gallery: The Alternative Reality of the Assassin

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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.

SPIEGEL: How?

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?

'I Had to Do It Is a Sentence One Often Hears from Assassins'

Schneider: This has been statistically proven. The more open and transparent a system is, the more it incurs the suspicion that there is something in the background, something invisible that controls things.

SPIEGEL: Would that make WikiLeaks an assassin, in the sense of paranoiac reason?

Schneider: WikiLeaks is driven by the same paranoiac desire to shed light into every corner and wrest every last secret from the hands of the powerful. This is paradoxical in itself, because those behind WikiLeaks need secrecy themselves. They have to do everything in their power to protect their sources, and in doing so they create their own secrets and secretive individuals, which a new group could target with its own suspicions.

SPIEGEL: It is notable how often the symbols and numbers from which paranoiacs derive meaning come from literature and film.

Schneider: Assassins are intensive users of the media. The media are the source of their suspicion, which simultaneously creates a strong urge to appear in precisely the same media. John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981, was a movie buff. Hinckley was deeply impressed by Martin Scorsese's film "Taxi Driver" and stalked Jodie Foster, who was 13 at the time. He wrote her poems and countless letters. Of course, they remained unanswered. Then he wrote the following monstrous sentence in a letter to the New York Times: "The shooting was the greatest love offering in the history of the world." This short, unhappy, miserable guy framed his thoughts in such global, historical dimensions. It was his dream to live in the White House with Jodie Foster.

SPIEGEL: Of course, Ronald Reagan was the one standing in his way. But doesn't that would-be assassin contradict your theory of paranoiac reason? Reason doesn't seem to come into play here.

Schneider: Yes, it does. He knew the entire history of assassinations. He knew about his predecessors and, in a sense, identified with them. He knew what would happen after the act, that images would be created and circle the globe within a day. He knew that he was stepping from an unseen state into the public eye. And then, he thought, the woman I worship will see me. The idea of moving from the obscure into the public realm is a strong incentive.

SPIEGEL: Which assassins are you particularly interested in?

Schneider: Mark David Chapman, for example, the man who shot John Lennon. Not because I have any particular sympathy for him, but his story is moving and devastating. He believed that he was reading about himself in J.D. Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye." Immediately after the deed, with Lennon and still lying in the lobby of the Dakota building, Chapman reached for the book and began reading. He also talked about synchronicities that eventually encouraged him to commit the crime.

SPIEGEL: By synchronicity you mean that events that are in fact unrelated are nevertheless brought into relation with one another?

Schneider: The term was coined by C.G. Jung and refers to the relationship between events that are only random on the surface. For example, the name of the man who sold the murder weapon to Chapman in Honolulu was Ono, like Lennon's wife. When Chapman reached for a magazine on the flight to New York, John Lennon was on the cover. There was an entire series of these details that he saw as synchronicities and that helped him rationalize his decision to commit the murder: It's clear, I have my mission. "I had to do it" is a sentence one hears again and again among assassins.

SPIEGEL: The original assassin, in your analysis, was Brutus, Caesar's murderer. Was this man paranoid?

Schneider: Not in the clinical sense, of course. But Brutus, like his fellow assassins, pursued a fundamental suspicion, namely that Caesar wanted to become king. This would have spelled the death of the republic. Although Caesar insisted that he didn't want the crown, the conspirators' interpretation of his behavior led them to the opposite conclusion.

SPIEGEL: They pursued their suspicions.

Schneider: A person who becomes an assassin is always an interpreter first: of numbers and facts, of gestures, or sentences and of silences. The case of Brutus is so interesting and is still discussed today because there were understandable reasons for the murder of Caesar. Dante placed him in hell, but to this day Brutus has important supporters, starting with Cicero. In fact, his reputation is practically flawless.

SPIEGEL: When does suspicion cross the line into paranoia?

Schneider: When all of the non-rational moments that are part of reason disappear. That's when it turns pathological. When there are no longer any doubts in a person's thoughts, and there is no hesitation in his actions. When empathy is no longer possible and the person becomes consumed by the feeling that it is absolutely necessary that certain things be done to prevent the worst from happening. That's when the person is no longer paranoiac but paranoid.

SPIEGEL: But what about someone like Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler? You can't exactly call that paranoia.

Schneider: In that case, it wasn't the assassin who was paranoid, but his opponents, which included both Hitler and large segments of German society. It is quite possible, and Stalinism is a case in point, that the majority of a group shares irrational, delusional views.

SPIEGEL: You mentioned Sherlock Holmes as an example of what you call a healthy paranoia. In other words, the detective is our doctor who treats acute contingency intolerance?

Schneider: Absolutely. He destroys contingency, because he is able to deduce something that makes sense out of seemingly random clues. We delegate our hope that evil can be recognized and therefore combated to crime-solving heroes like Holmes, to investigators and police officers.

SPIEGEL: You call the assassin the "black angel of chance." He is invisible, he appears out of nowhere, like Loughner or the shooters behind the Columbine massacre, and he causes devastation by committing murder seemingly at random.

Schneider: The randomness is the key. Sebastian B., the Emsdetten school shooter, believed that Columbine killer Eric Harris was God, and Dylan Klebold, Harris's friend, saw himself as "some kind of God." None of these young men -- the typical assassin is male and around 20 -- was insane or intellectually deficient. They played God when they committed their crimes. They were demons of chance. The arrogance of being in control of the lives and deaths of random individuals for a few hours or minutes gave them the ultimate high. One of the last entries in Dylan Klebold's diary was: "Have fun!"

SPIEGEL: And what about Islamist suicide bombers?

Schneider: Unlike the Loughners and school shooters, who derive the unavoidability of their deed from their paranoid thoughts, these radical believers receive their decision to act from an outside source. They live in a collective paranoiac conviction that nothing happens without God's will. They also act for a recognizable reason. For our world, their actions on Sept. 11, 2001 were an extreme case of contingency: unpredictable, horrible and simply incomprehensible at first. Politically speaking, they were backed by the will to teach our system a lesson in uncertainty. It was an attempt to promote paranoid thinking in our society. However, there was a reason behind their actions that we can now understand. It is no longer an isolated, paranoid act, which has one advantage.

SPIEGEL: Which is?

Schneider: We now have a relatively accurate picture of Islamist suicide assassins. There is now a phenotype that investigators can use as a model. The attackers of Sept. 11 were unpredictable, but their potential successors, 10 years later, are not. We know enough about men of this type to be able to act preventively.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schneider, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philipp Oehmke and Elke Schmitter
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