There are no reasonable racists
The perpetrator from Hanau is considered a right-wing extremist and mentally ill. But it is difficult to distinguish him from "reasonably thinking racists". Probably because the latter doesn't exist, argues our columnist Matthias Warkus.
On February 19, 2020, a right-wing extremist assassin killed nine people with a migration background in Hanau. He left behind a longer document in the nature of a manifesto, which, together with a YouTube video that was a few days older, describes his motivation for this act. It provides evidence that the perpetrator was not only right-wing extremist and racist, but probably also seriously mentally ill. Accordingly, much has been discussed in recent days about the relationship between these two complexes.
As this is a philosophical column, I would like to address an aspect of these discussions that has obvious philosophical relevance because it deals with issues of sanity and irrationality. Clarifying the question of what reason or rationality actually is and how it is to be distinguished from unreason or irrationality has always been one of the core themes of philosophy.
Clearing the question of what reason actually is has always been one of the core themes of philosophy
The manifesto of the Hanau murderer shows various aspects of a severe paranoid symptomatology. According to his own statements, the perpetrator heard voices, believed he was being followed by the secret services and saw the most diverse events in different areas of life, from sports and cinema to world politics, controlled by his own wishes. That someone who thinks this way does not think rationally needs no great explanation.
The text also contains considerations that at first glance seem far less delusional. For example, the perpetrator also talks about the alleged historical merits and the different capabilities of different "peoples" and about a connection to "foreign crime" - common rhetorical patterns among right-wing politicians and publicists. If the relevant passages are isolated from the manifesto, there is nothing about them that suggests that they were penned by a mentally ill person. But does that mean they are rational? Certainly not.
Isn't unreasonable the same as unreasonable?
Are there different kinds of unreasonableness? And what are the differences? Is it in any way more "rational" to believe that large parts of humanity are inferior for some inherited reason and therefore need to be exterminated, or at least briefly held, than to believe that huge, globally operating intelligence apparatuses are concerned with the desires of an unemployed graduate -Kaufmanns from Hanau come true?
One might try to argue that in one case the ability to reason logically has been lost altogether, while in the other case only the underlying assumptions are wrong. However, the transitions are fluid here. For example, if one concludes from an account of a single crime committed by a single member of a group that all members of that group are inferior, this is a classic fallacy of logic, not just a fallacy of assumption. Nevertheless, we accept right-wing politicians, who constantly express and defend precisely such conclusions on their social media channels and in the context of election campaigns, as participants in the media discourse and invite them to talk shows. We do not declare them unreasonable and therefore not to be taken seriously.
If we try to sharply define what is supposed to distinguish a "reasonably thinking racist" from someone like the perpetrator from Hanau, we inevitably get stuck. The conclusion is that there is no sharp difference. The fact that someone killed here who was possibly also seriously mentally ill does not change the fact that the ideology in which he was embedded is itself one that only works because the use of reason is restricted in it. If someone draws the conclusion from their racist idea of an inequality of "nations" that millions of people have to be "annihilated" like the perpetrator did - and not just individual terrorists, but countless extermination bureaucrats and vicarious agents in the Nazi state did it – then that is both inimical to reason and anti-civilization. Completely independent of whether a mental illness is present or not.