Der Spiegel has an interview (in English) with Manfred Schneider, who has researched assassinations. Schneider thinks that assassins like Jared Loughner are not crazy but hyper-rational. He explains: 

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 believed he was acting in a rational and moral fashion: 

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. 

I had noticed that Loughner had a peculiar fascination with semiotics, how things mean. Schneider explains: 

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.

There are good paranoiacs, like Sherlock Holmes (and perhaps some bloggers) who piece together seemingly random bits of information to discover the truth.

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.

How to tell the difference? Suspicions based on clues can be baseless:

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.

However, suppose a German in 1942 put together snippets of information and decided that the German government was engaging in mass murder of Jews. Wouldn’t he have been considered paranoid by most Germans?

As modern, rational men, we want to find the cause of Loughner’s actions and assign blame; we can’t believe that he had acted in a closed system that seemed rational to him but irrational to the rest of us. Therefore liberals found a target Sarah Palin and the cross hairs she put on the congresswoman’s district:

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.

My interest in politics is weak, so I don’t know if Schneider is accurate in his characterization of the Tea Party and Palin.

However, Americans, unlike Canadians, have always been suspicious of government. Such suspicion is for better or worse an abiding national characteristic, and the Left was deeply suspicious of the American conduct of the war in Vietnam.

When does suspicion become paranoia?

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.

I am not sure Schneider really answers the question.

George Elser tried to assassinate Hitler.

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.

The assassin is the evil paranoiac; the detective and the investigator, the good paranoiac:

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.

But suppose the police are the Gestapo?

An objective moral framework, separate from the individual and even from the society is necessary to distinguish good from evil paranoia. This raises epistemological questions and ultimately theological questions, which I do not want to consider at present.

In a previous career I was a federal investigator doing background investigations. Most were straightforward, but I was always alert to seemingly random cues: slips people made, discrepancies, significant objects.

At the time we were concerned about concealed homosexuality that could open a person to blackmail. I noticed that one person I was investigating had a lambda bumper sticker, and a few things about her background did not fit together. I was pursuing the theory that she was a lesbian, but one of my coworkers, a black woman, informed me that the lambda was the sign of a black sorority, which did not have a clue it was also a symbol for lesbianism. In that case my paranoid theory did not pan out. But in other cases it did, opening cans of worms. One investigator discovered a case of treason by noticing that the house the person lived in was far more expensive that he could have afforded on his government salary.

In investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, one has to be paranoid and try to make sense out of seemingly random clues. We know there was a cover-up, and those responsible for it have still not come clean.

What to make of odds and ends: a priest’s name is spelled differently over the years, he disappears from the Catholic Directory and then reappears again, a bishop vacations in Thailand, a parish has three abusers in residence at the same time, a bishop goes to Rome and immediately tells Father Fitzgerald to ditch his plan to isolate abusers on an island, a bishop is told a priest has abused boys and the bishop immediately makes the priest a boy scout chaplain, and so on. How many of these events are random, how many are clues to something really evil going on? Is the only difference between the bad paranoid and the good paranoid is that the good one is right and the bad one is wrong? But how to tell whether you are right or wrong until you pursue the theory until it is confirmed or disproved – and is it always possible to do one or the other?




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