The assailant, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, had uploaded a video and a 24-page document online, where he urged the “extermination” of “races or cultures in our midst.” Volker Bouffier, leader of the state of Hesse, where Hanau is located, said the attack “came out of a climate” that exists “to some degree worldwide.”
The tragedy reflects a worrying uptick in far-right violence in Germany. “In June, a politician known as a vocal supporter of asylum seekers was shot dead,” my colleagues reported. “In October, a shooter tried to attack a synagogue in the German city of Halle on Yom Kippur, turning his homemade weapon on passersby and a nearby kebab shop after he failed to gain entry.” Earlier this week, they added, German police “arrested 12 members of a far-right group planning attacks on mosques and targets associated with refugees and asylum seekers, drawing inspiration from last year’s mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed more than 50 people.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that “there is much to indicate that the perpetrator acted out of far-right extremist, racist motives.” She decried the “poison” of hate and racism that “exists in our society” and said that “it’s to blame for too many tragic events.”
Close to a year since the Christchurch attack, there’s little sign of the hate that fueled that slaughter abating. Analysts warn of a rise in “global Islamophobia” on grisly display not just in the massacres carried out by lone wolves in the West, but also in the vast prison camps of China’s Xinjiang region and in the rhetoric and policy choices of India’s Hindu nationalist government. Meanwhile, Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic feel more vulnerable. On Thursday in London, police apprehended a knife-wielding assailant who stabbed the muezzin — the person who conducts the ritual call to prayer — in the city’s Central Mosque. Police said the victim, who is in his 70s, suffered injuries not believed to be life-threatening.
In Europe, analysts point to domestic blind spots and challenges in reckoning with an increasingly militant far right. “Part of the problem is that until now, the German security community doesn’t seem to have been very good at dealing with the situation,” said Patrik Hermansson of Hope Not Hate, a group that monitors far-right activity. “In some cases, extremists have had links with the police and the military.” Similar criticisms can be levied at Washington. Last year, a flurry of investigations cast light on the troubling prevalence of white supremacists within the U.S. military.
Beyond the security dimension, there is a political question, and that’s where critics argue that President Trump fails.
Although a host of European leaders decried the attack in Hanau, Trump has remained conspicuously silent about it. That’s in keeping with a long-running double standard of his presidency: Trump calls attention to acts of Muslim- or migrant-linked violence on his Twitter feed, but he has a pattern of sidestepping or soft-pedaling incidents involving white-nationalist or far-right perpetrators.
Trump’s rhetoric about hordes of migrants invading the United States and rival “globalists” plotting open borders loomed over deadly far-right mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and in El Paso this August. On Thursday evening, hours after the attack in Germany, Trump was at a campaign event in Arizona, where he spoke of an undocumented migrant accused of murder as “a savage animal,” in yet another bid to link all migrants with criminality.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and a former Fox News pundit with a habit of berating journalists on Twitter, also did not issue a statement. Grenell’s tenure in Berlin has been mired in controversy. In 2018, he told the far-right website Breitbart that he wanted to “empower” Europe’s right-wing nationalists. The remarks led to an immediate backlash from German officials. A prominent center-left German politician even said at the time that Trump’s envoy was acting less “like a diplomat” and more “like a far-right colonial officer.” On Thursday, in a move that scandalized observers on both sides of the Atlantic, Trump named Grenell the acting director of national intelligence — that is, America’s spy chief.
Trump’s performance Thursday echoed his behavior around the time of the Christchurch shooting, when he warned yet again of immigrant “invaders” and defended a Fox News host who was suspended for making Islamophobic comments. His reaction stood in stark contrast to the actions of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who rushed to stand in solidarity with her country’s Muslim community. Her display of empathy and conviction won her worldwide plaudits.
In an interview with Time magazine this month, Ardern spoke of the feelings of powerlessness and grievance that get fanned by anti-immigrant populists elsewhere. “We can either stoke it with fear and blame,” she said, “or we can respond to it by taking some responsibility and giving some hope that our democratic institutions, our politicians, can do something about what they’re feeling.”