To understand war criminals we must learn to respect the irrational mind
January 13, 2009

THE SCENE: A graduate seminar in political psychology at a Canadian University. The professor enters and takes his place at the end of a medium-sized oblong table)

Professor: “Good morning, and welcome to Aberrant Political Psychology. I’m Professor Langston. Before we begin, a show of hands—how many of you are taking this course because you want to know what makes people become evil? (a few hands go up.) Hmm. You’ll save yourself and this class a lot of aggravation if you leave right now and sign up for a Bible study course. ‘Evil’ is a moral absolute found only in the simplistic, zero-sum world of religion and American movies. It has no place in a rational investigation of the human mind.”

Reg: “Are you saying that evil does not exist?”

Prof. Langston: “Of course I am. (pause) Does my answer surprise you?”

Reg: “Given that we live in a world where genocide, torture and police-state terrorism have become commonplace, yeah, you could say I’m surprised.”

Prof. Langston: (to the students generally) “Does anyone else share this student’s cognitive impairment? Yes, you.” (points to a female student with her hand up)

Judith: “I don’t see what was wrong with what he said. You obviously can’t defend such acts.”

Prof. Langston: “Of course not, but that doesn’t mean I have to reduce the people who commit these acts to empty stereotypes. How can you hope to explain the mind of a criminal if you have already dismissed him as absolutely bad according to your standard of morality? To demonize even the most reprehensible criminal as ‘evil’ forecloses any possibility of understanding his motives, which is the purpose of this course.

Reg: “All right, professor, if you deny the existence of evil…”

Prof. Langston: “…Hold it! If you’re going to be a student in my class you’re going to learn to speak accurately. (To the class) What error did he make?… yes. (points to a different student)”

Stan: “He committed petitio principii— begging the question.”

Prof. Langston: “Excellent! Tell the class what it means.”

Stan: “Begging the question is a form of false argument in which a speaker takes for granted the validity of an unproven assumption. For example, I saw an on-line story about a speaker at the Vancouver Library and the headline said the speaker denied being a ‘Jew Hater’. Of course, he wasn’t…isn’t… but the headline assumed the truth of the slur and smeared the speaker by implication. In your case, you said evil does not exist, but Reg said you denied the existence of evil, thereby taking the fact of evil for granted and making you out to be a denier of that fact.”

Prof. Langston: “Thank you. (looking back at Reg) Would you like to try your question again?”

Reg: (Throws Stan a dirty look ) “Uhh, sure… Since you say evil does not exist why does the Canadian government support genocide, torture and police-state terrorism? Why is it concocting monstrous sophistries to rationalize Israel’s mass murder of Gazans? Such behaviour seems irrational for one of the world’s most respected democracies.”

Prof. Langston: “That is precisely the point! It is irrational, and acceptance of irrationality lies at the root of understanding why war crimes occur. So, why do you think people support genocide, torture and police-state terrorism?”

“ ‘Evil’ is a moral absolute found only in the simplistic, zero-sum world of religion and American movies. It has no place in a rational investigation of the human mind.”
—Prof. Langston
Judith: “I suppose the answer lies in what drives them to violate accepted norms of moral and legal conduct.”

Prof. Langston: “Correct, and as you know from your assigned reading this violation is called ‘sociopathic’ or “psychopathic’ behaviour. We’ll get into the fine distinctions later, but in general both types of criminals lack the ability to feel compassion for their victims. Compassion, what the philosopher Adam Smith called ‘fellow feeling’, stops us from harming others because we can imagine ourselves in the victim’s place. It is also the basis of Immanuel Kant’s famous categorical imperative: ‘Treat every person as if that person were an end of nature in himself.’ The psychopath, in this case the pro-Israel apologist, feels no compunction about lying to justify the torture and mass murder of a defenceless civilian population because in his dissociative mental state he sees no connection between himself and his victim.… yes, a question?”

Judith: “What causes this dissociative behaviour?”

Prof. Langston: “We don’t know the answer to that, yet, but two causes are narcissism and religion, which go hand in hand. Why do you think that is?” (points to another student)

Gilbert: “Any faith-based religion is by definition irrational because it has no factual component. A true believer of this religion becomes so thoroughly marinated in the dogma and mysticism that he comes to sees himself as morally superior to others and believes his actions to be divinely inspired, or at least not limited by civil law or morality. This belief is entirely delusional, because the higher moral calling he believes to exist is nothing more than the distorted echo of his own superego, the part of the personality that Freud said is concerned with moral standards and the sense of right and wrong. In the psychopathic mind, the superego is so inflated and warped that it overrides the other elements of the personality, the id and ego, the latter of which tells us to weigh the appropriateness or inappropriateness of an action.”

Prof. Langston: “Glad we have at least one psychology major among us. Yes, indeed: because the psychopath’s actions are based on unfounded beliefs or desires they are irrational and lead to violent behaviour that he rationalizes in the name of a higher morality. How can we tell if someone is a psychopath?”

stan: “In The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, 1991, Dr. Robert Hare says that psychopaths look as normal as anyone else, but they do have some marked characteristics that include: lack of remorse or guilt, shallow emotional response, lack of empathy, and lying. Although, whether such lying is pathological or merely compulsive would need to be determined.

Prof. Langston: “Well, you’re going to get a chance to talk to a politician who might exhibit some or all of those traits. I have arranged a live video link with an inmate at the National Centre for Psychiatric Abnormality. (excited murmuring. Prof. Langston pulls over a computer with webcam from a corner of the room, and boots it up)

“In a few moments you will meet Irwin Cotler. He was a Liberal MP from Montreal until about one month ago when members of his own party staged an intervention to have him committed. Though Cotler had exhibited aberrant behaviour numerous times in his apologetics for Israel, his recent paranoid rambling about a putative Iranian genocide against Israel, compared to his conspicuous silence on Israel’s actual genocide against Palestine raised fears that he might be suffering from a dissociative disorder. Thus the need for psychiatric evaluation.

“Adding to the concern is Cotler’s position as a leading figure in the National Assembly of Zionist Intellectuals, a cult that justifies Israeli aggression and denigrates those who show sympathy for Israel’s victims. (The computer is on and soon two attendants are seen escorting Irwin Cotler to a table in a sparse, sterile room. The camera is fixed on Cotler from the chest up.) Hello, Irwin. Welcome to my class.”

Judith: (aside, whispering to Reg sitting to her left as introductions are made) “Does any this remind you of that CSI episode we saw about a month ago?!”

Reg: (whispering) “Shhh! Can’t talk. Taking notes.”

Irwin Cotler: “…Welcome?! This is an outrage!”

Prof. Langston “Nevertheless, you did agree to participate, and I expect you to be honest and agreeable. (to the class) Who has a question for Mr. Cotler? Yes…”

Judith: “Prof. Langston says you’re a human rights lawyer.”

Cotler: “Hello, Clarisse! Good to see you, again.”

Judith: “My name’s not Clarisse!”

Cotler: “Sorry. You look familiar.”

Judith: “At any rate, given your interest in human rights, why have you not condemned Israel’s slaughter in the Gaza Strip?”

Cotler: “Why should I? Israel has a right to defend itself! Hamas terrorists started it by firing rockets into Israel, thereby breaking a cease-fire.”

Judith: “Are you sure?

Cotler: “Of course, I’m sure!”

Judith: “CNN and former president Jimmy Carter both proved that Israel broke the ceasefire in November and that the attack was planned six months in advance. Even former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy admitted that Hamas rockets had nothing to do with Israel’s attack.”

Cotler: “Hamas is a terrorist organization. Its refusal to respect Israel’s right to exist is the cause of the violence.”

Stan: “What about Palestine’s right to exist? Do Palestinians have the right of self-def…”

Cotler: “Palestine is run by terrorists; Israel is a democracy. Are you taking the side of terrorists?!”

Prof. Langston: “Irwin, remember: you’re here to answer questions, not ask them, and let’s watch the temper. (points to another student)

Gilbert: “Mr. Cotler, I am a psychology graduate with a specialty in the dynamics of group violence and I came across a speech you gave recently to The International Association of Genocide Scholars…”

Cotler: “Good! I’m glad one person here knows what genocide means.”

Gilbert: “Speaking of the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda you said: ‘These genocides occurred not only because of the machinery of death but because of the state-sanctioned incitement to genocide, coupled with the indifference and inaction by the international community, including the United Nations.’

“In February last year Israel’s deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai threatened to commit a ‘bigger shoah’ on the people of Gaza if they didn’t stop Qassam rocket attacks. Shoah, as you know, translates as Holocaust. Is this not proof that Israel’s government is guilty of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide?”

‘Strait’ Talk from Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler The Psychopath
Cotler: “What’s the matter with you? You just admitted that the Qassam rocket attacks were the cause of the minister’s comments. Prof. Langston, I am afraid I don’t think much of your students. Are they oblivious to the Holocaust, and that the State of Israel is fighting for its existence?”

Prof. Langston: “No, they are very well informed. They just see an incongruity between your self-professed concern for human rights and your selective condemnation of genocide. Regardless of who is to blame, surely you can condemn Israel’s deliberate shelling of schools, universities, clinics, doctors, and even people in funeral processions!”

Cotler: “I will not say anything that does not include condemnation of Hamas.”

Prof. Langston: “Just as well, since it seems we are out of time. Thank you for joining us. (the webcam is shut off). Any comments?”

Judith: “I don’t know where to begin. Cotler clearly displays psychopathic traits. The words he used to condemn the Rwanda and Darfur genocides apply perfectly to the Gaza genocide, yet he exhibits no awareness of this fact, much less sympathy for the victims of Israel’s shoah.”

Reg: “He also exhibits the irrationality of the true believer. His constant blaming of Hamas was utterly non-cognitive, even after Judith cited two sources that proved Israel broke the ceasefire. He might as well have declared Hamas to be ‘evil’, thereby conceding that Israel’s attack is a gratuitous slaughter.”

Prof. Langston: “I chose Cotler because he is the most disturbing example of an irrational political mind. He uses his human rights reputation not as a basis for intellectual discussion but as a mask, and many people don’t look behind the mask.”

Stan: “How is it possible that a Jew of all people could rationalize a decades-long oppression of Palestinians, to say nothing of the mass murder being committed right now. Does it have something to do with Judaism, itself?”

Gilbert: “No it doesn’t, although the Hebrew Bible is rife with incitements to genocide such as Deuteronomy 7:1-2: ‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.’

“Despite the similarity of this passage to actual Israeli policy, this and other biblical references do not apply to Gaza because they are mandated in the name of God. In Israel’s case, the zionists’ call to murder Palestinians is somewhat more selfish and political, since it is done in their own name—the ‘Jewish people’—even though Israeli historian Shlomo Sand proved that the idea of a Jewish people is a historical fallacy.”

Stan: “So, for the last 60 years, Israel has dispossessed, murdered, humiliated, tortured and starved Palestinians in the name of what?”

Gilbert: “Their own perverted superego. I don’t know if this condition has a name.”

Prof. Langston: “There is no official name, but U.S. researchers are calling it “Dershowitz-Foxman Syndrome.”

Stan: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Reducing one’s enemy to a moral stereotype is irrational because it makes understanding impossible. Also acting contrary to one’s professed principles is irrational. Third, the inability to feel compassion for the victims of violence—to say nothing of committing it—is a sign of psychopathic behaviour. Irwin Cotler is an example of all three, and we’re supposed to recognize him as a dangerous mental aberration.”

Prof. Langston: “Correct.”

Stan: “But is he? (pause) What makes Cotler any less unhinged than politicians like Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff or Stephen Harper, whose responses to the massacre have been just as craven, heartless and non-cognitive? Every one might as well have been issued by Israel’s propaganda service.

“Furthermore, the media are also willfully blind to the suffering in Gaza. Newspaper editors beat the drums for genocide and regurgitate Israeli disinformation like Pavlov’s dogs. It seems to me that Cotler represents the norm, not the aberration, and if that’s the case has criminality in this country become the norm, and has rational argument become criminal?”

Prof. Langston: “Let’s pick it up there next time.”