The racist fanatic who shot dead 10 people this week in the German city of Hanau, before turning his gun on himself, fitted a familiar, poisonous pattern. His mind was polluted with grotesque conspiracy theories circulating on the internet, he suffered from psychosexual anxieties and he liked lethal weaponry. It was no accident that most of his victims were from immigrant communities. Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s justice minister, reflected a growing concern when she said the killings showed that “rightwing extremism and rightwing terrorism are the biggest threat to our democracy today”.
Like its western allies in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks on the US in September 2001, Germany concentrated on the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. This threat is real enough, as people in London, Madrid, Paris and other cities know. But the focus on violent Islamism meant authorities in some democracies, including Germany, were slow off the mark in tackling increasingly extreme rightwing terror. The carnage in Norway in 2011, the murder of British politician Jo Cox in 2016 and last year’s killings in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, underline the global scale of the problem.
These incidents show that the issue facing western societies is not organised mass rightwing violence. But neither is it simply a matter of “lone wolves”, killers with disturbed personalities who operate independently of their social setting. There is a political context to the violence and our democracies would be missing the point if they limited their response to law and order measures, such as tougher gun controls.
The backdrop to the growing violence is the erosion of the liberal order in western societies and the concomitant rise of nationalist and rightwing populist movements, whose stock in trade is xenophobia and racism. These forces are now represented in the legislatures of most democracies. They exploit free speech — not to advocate violence as such, but to whip up prejudices and to discredit mainstream politicians as multiculturalist traitors to white Christian civilisation. In this way, they contribute to a climate in which lonely extremists find excuses for murder.
The reaction to the Hanau killings of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party was typical of this new environment. In one breath, party officials issued a formal condemnation of the murders. In the next, they suggested it was only to be expected, thanks to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, that a native German would one day “flip out” and commit a violent crime. Politicians on the moderate right of the spectrum, in Germany and other democracies, should not only distance themselves firmly from such dishonesty, but should cease all flirtations with the radical right and leave voters in no doubt that they will never admit extremists into government.
The German authorities stepped up the fight against ultra-right violence after the murder in June of Walter Lübcke, a politician who was a vocal supporter of Ms Merkel’s refugee policies. His death was the first assassination of a politician by a rightwing extremist since the Federal Republic’s birth in 1949. New measures include more intensive efforts to monitor online radicalism, stronger laws against hate speech on social media and more staff at intelligence agencies. These are welcome steps. But the bigger battle that needs to be fought is the one against hatred, lies and intolerance.
Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published