What causes hate, terror and how to fight it: Ex-prosecutor discusses

Retired Connecticut federal prosecutor Henry Kopel argues that the majority of terrorists and recruits are often highly educated and well-off.

 WHITE SUPREMACIST who Henry Kopel prosecuted. (photo credit: HENRY KOPEL)
WHITE SUPREMACIST who Henry Kopel prosecuted.
(photo credit: HENRY KOPEL)

It’s been a journey, almost a crusade, for the author of War on Hate.

Retired Connecticut federal prosecutor Henry Kopel grew up in Haverhill, a factory town in Massachusetts that, although ethnically diverse, had a small but vibrant Jewish community. His parents were psychiatric social workers, and his maternal grandfather was co-founder and first president of their synagogue. After Kopel’s mother traveled to Israel with their congregation, she felt so inspired that she learned Hebrew and had her bat mitzvah at age 80, an event that made the front page of their local newspaper.

Kopel’s own passion for learning about Israel and the Middle East began in high school, and intensified when he majored in political science at Brandeis University. He continued to study politics, as well as economics, at the University of Oxford, where he received a dual master’s degree. He became a criminal defense attorney after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania law school in 1986.

During his career spanning over 30 years, Kopel prosecuted white-collar and other crimes involving domestic terrorism, violence, narcotics trafficking, fraud and national security risk at the state and federal levels.

In one of Kopel’s most notable cases, he led a multiyear FBI investigation and, in 2010, prosecuted Connecticut’s most visible white supremacist group for trafficking illegal guns and explosives to the KKK. The leader of the group was recorded by an FBI informant as saying, “Let’s drink a lot and then it’s alco-Holocaust,” while driving around a wealthy southwestern Connecticut area, which he speculated was Jewish. When FBI and federal agents searched his apartment, they found a six-foot-tall (1.8-meter) Nazi flag, a concentration camp guard flag and a giant photo of Adolf Hitler hanging from the walls, as well as an arm patch from an SS officer.

 KOPEL WITH his wife, mother and brother. (credit: HENRY KOPEL) KOPEL WITH his wife, mother and brother. (credit: HENRY KOPEL)

Since 2016, Kopel has been a guest lecturer every year at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he teaches a seminar on how to prosecute hate crimes. He tells the Magazine, “What that search showed is that, yet again, people who engage, or seek to engage, in crimes and harms involving hatred, they’ve been marinating in it around the clock, and this guy just lived it.”

Kopel remembers how deeply affected he was to hear about the heart-wrenching Itamar massacre of an Israeli family in the West Bank. Ruth Fogel, age 35, was fatally shot, and her husband, Ehud, and three of their children, Yoav, 11, Elad, four, and Hadas, a three-month-old baby girl, were stabbed to death with knives and wire cutters while they were in bed, sleeping. The baby was reportedly found decapitated. 

The Palestinian terrorists, ages 17 and 18, expressed no remorse and said they would commit their heinous crime again, and that they did it for Palestine, because of “the occupation.” One of the terrorists said he would have killed the other children also, had he known they were there. Residents in Rafah, a city in Gaza, celebrated by customarily handing out candy in the streets.

Although Palestinian leaders denounced the attack, the Palestinian Authority continues to handsomely reward terrorists by paying them and their families monthly stipends from a “pay to slay” martyrs fund.

Kopel describes Itamar as “a turning point.” He states, “What could drive a person to do that? I had already been thinking about the Oslo peace process failing, 9/11, the white supremacist case and then, after Itamar, I said, ‘I need to write about this because the news reports aren’t talking about why these people are doing these hateful acts of violence.’”

He started writing for an online public affairs site called The Commentator in the UK. His first column was titled, “We have to challenge the Palestinians’ mechanisms of hate incitement if we ever want peace to work.”

KOPEL’S RECENT book, War on Hate: How to Stop Genocide, Fight Terrorism, and Defend Freedom, opens with the haunting lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song, “You’ve Got to be Taught,” referring to how people are, quite literally, programmed to hate, oftentimes unknowingly through propaganda.

War on Hate challenges conventional viewpoints that poverty and ancient hatred, like prejudice, are causal factors for terrorism and genocide. He argues that the vast majority of terrorists, both those who are orchestrating and funding the acts of violence from behind the scenes, as well as the recruits, are often highly educated and economically well-off.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly had a PhD from the Iraqi University, and it was mostly the more educated ISIS recruiters who wanted to be “suicide fighters.” Similarly, at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, it was 15 high-level government officials, eight of whom had doctoral degrees, that implemented “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” their plan to murder 11 million European Jews.

Prior to the commencement of the Nuremberg trials in 1945, 21 out of 24 of the most influential leaders of the Third Reich, who were indicted for war crimes, were administered IQ tests, which showed they were in the higher range of intelligence. Nineteen of the Nazis were administered Rorschach personality tests, which were analyzed by a psychiatrist and psychologist, who determined that all of them were intelligent, high-functioning and mentally sane without psychiatric disorders.

Psychological tests were also administered to 200 lower-ranking Nazi collaborators awaiting trial for war crimes in Copenhagen in 1946, which yielded similar findings. They were of average to high intelligence, and although some had rigid and pessimistic thought patterns, none were found to be mentally disturbed or to have a propensity toward violence.

Kopel cites a post-World War II study conducted by American historian Christopher Browning that closely analyzed the behavior and psychological makeup of 210 Nazi killing squad members. In one year, 500 once ordinary, nonviolent German citizens in the squad chose to gun down at close range 38,000 innocent men, women and children, and send an additional 45,000 to be exterminated. They could have opted out of having to kill people without any punishment or repercussions, but they voluntarily agreed to do it. 

Researchers who studied nine other similar battalions noticed the same pattern. Members who were considered to be regular German citizens, and were not clinically diagnosed psychopaths, willingly chose to commit mass murder.

Kopel says that, like Nazis, terrorists also “are neither intrinsically violent nor pathological, but, rather, reflect an ordinary population sample – i.e., they are made, not born.”

He chillingly states, “Something significant transformed these ‘ordinary’ Germans into mass killers of civilians,” adding, “Every genocide starts with hate indoctrination.”

He explains how something he termed the “perpetrator mindset” is the result of mass hate incitement, which is fueled by spreading propaganda, criminalizing dissent, pressure to conform to corrupt social norms, pitting people against each other and punishing a minority group for revenge and to protect and benefit “the greater good.” The incitement of hate is formulaic and, under the right circumstances, can be activated in ordinary people like a light switch being turned on.

Kopel notes that genocide “could happen to anyone, anywhere. It’s not limited to any group or culture.” He cites examples of the Holocaust, the Serbian genocide of the Bosnian Muslims and the Rwandan Hutu genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi. “Jews, Muslims and Christians are all victims of genocides, Europeans, Muslims, Africans. In other words, this is universal,” he says.

THERE ARE imminent, predictive warning signs to look out for.

Media collusion with government propaganda, along with censorship, is a precipitating factor of an oppressive government seeking to control its people by any means necessary. Autocracies typically create a dualistic “us versus them” mindset of two opposing groups, which can lead to genocide.

“The state completely takes over the media and suppresses and shuts down contrary media, so they could just get the sole perspective of, ‘these people are the ones who did this to us, that’s why we’re suffering. We’ve got to get rid of them,’” Kopel says.

The ostracized group is blamed for the ill-fated state of that country or society, even though it is their own internal problems that are causing the upheaval – a tactic that helps to deflect from a leader’s deficits.

The government strips away the civil and human rights of people in this group, severing them from society. They are painted as a danger and threat to the very existence of others, such as when Jews were called purveyors of diseases in Nazi Germany. Under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Jews lost their citizenship and the right to marry outside of their “race.” Subsequent legal restrictions made it impossible for Jews to earn a living, receive an education, get medical treatment, own property or travel.

Ascribing dehumanizing language or imagery to a demonized group as part of a mass hate campaign is especially damaging and a dangerous predictor of genocide. Nazis referred to Jews as “poison” and “swine.” A Der Stürmer cartoon titled “Demon Money” depicts a Jew, with money symbols on his arms, as a devil wanting world domination.

Subhuman stigmatizing has long-lasting effects. To this day, stores in Poland sell figurines of stereotypical caricatures of Jews holding money bags “for luck.” Jews are still seen through a watered-down version of a Nazi propaganda lens.

Kopel remembers hearing that, after 9/11, Israeli customs officials checking shipments that were coming into the West Bank found a massive number of cigarette lighters shaped like the World Trade Center.

“They’d light it up like they were lighting the World Trade Center on fire,” he says.

It’s a symbol of how the sanctity of human life has already been extinguished.

The PA’s official daily newspaper has been publishing headlines such as “Massacre is the basis of the State of Israel,” “The Jew is the disease of the century” and “Israelis are the new Nazis” for over 20 years.

Statistically, the highest levels of terrorism and genocide in the world are in the Middle East/North Africa region. Kopel comments, “I call it the West Bank Gaza terrorist factory. The Palestinian people have been screwed by their own leaders.

“A vastly larger number of Muslims have been killed and maimed and wounded by terrorism, than have Westerners. In the Muslim world, and for very sad reasons, this ‘us versus them’ ideology of hatred has been ramped up so high... the two overarching causes that raise the risk of mass killing are, number 1, mass ideological hate incitement in the short term and, in the long term, corrupt autocratic, oppressive forms of government.”

Kopel describes modern, liberal democracies as having the least occurrence and risk of terrorism and genocide.

“The problem is,” he states, “you can never just easily, from the outside or from the inside, completely transition from an autocratic traditional state to a modern liberal democracy. It’s hugely complex and difficult... The principal thing is to encourage a culture of open discourse, rational open-ended inquiry, scientifically, politically and otherwise; establish a uniform form of law, equal justice for all; a reasonably open economy; respect for private property and independent entrepreneurship; widespread education and gender equality.”

War on Hate describes “willful blindness” with a quote from Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow, who states, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” Self-deception, not wanting to believe an inconvenient truth, and self-inflicted amnesia could also describe “willful blindness.”

An example of willful blindness is when the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden, hosted the exhibition “Snow White and the Madness of Truth,” praising Hanadi Jaradat, a female suicide bomber, as a “freedom fighter.” On display was a smiling photo of Jaradat raised like a flag on a boat over what looked like a pool of blood. The exhibit ironically had a connection to an international conference on the prevention of genocide. Jaradat had murdered 22 Israelis in cold blood three months prior in Haifa.

Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, Kopel believes that “to trust Iran at face value is the most dangerous form of willful blindness. This is a regime that has made clear that their leadership is engaged in a permanent jihad against the non-Islamic world, particularly the Western world and Israel, and that one of their most important national goals is annihilating Israel.”

He adds, “If you really believe in ‘Never Again,’ you have got to stop Iran from getting nukes by any means necessary.”

Kopel will soon be coming out with a book titled, The Great Forgetting: How prosperity corrodes wisdom and breeds ideological folly. He sums up the premise as, “When we become wealthy, safe and comfortable, there’s a heightened risk that we will forget the deep wisdom that often comes of harder times.” ■

The writer is an arts and culture, news and lifestyle writer who contributes to US and Israel newspapers and magazines.