SEATTLE — More than two years after I first reported on the Atomwaffen Division there’s an image of the group’s charismatic, passionate young leader that still leaps out in my mind.
Kaleb Cole was in his early 20s when he stood at the front entrance to Auschwitz, the true gates of hell on earth where the Nazis murdered more than a million human beings. He stood with his finger pointed to the sky next to Aiden Bruce-Umbaugh, another Washington-grown product of the deepest kind of hate. Bruce-Umbaugh is giving an enthusiastic “thumbs up.”
The image lives in a photo because, fortunately, Cole wanted to preserve the moment on his camera (which was later confiscated by Canadian authorities), so you can see it, too:
I see in this picture men who traveled to the ends of the earth (Auschwitz is in Poland) to study and celebrate the vilest hate that humankind has to offer.
That’s what I thought of as Cole was sentenced Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Seattle. Here’s a guy who worked a daytime job and then filled his free time – his evenings, his weekends, his vacations – in pursuit of Nazi ideology.
I was one of several victims Atomwaffen targeted at their homes with threatening posters or letters. Cole was recorded by an informant stating that my visit to his parents’ Arlington home, in which I sought a comment from him or his family for my reports on Atomwaffen, was the reason he decided to strike back against journalists.
Given the chance today to say something – anything – about his case or the people he harmed, he chose to say nothing. In a straightforward but powerful statement, before he handed Cole his sentence, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said he took Cole’s total lack of remorse into consideration when he delivered a seven-year prison term.
For me and the other victims in this case there won’t be any answers or insight into how a bright, young man was blinded by intolerance. From all outward appearances, Cole is blind even today.
Speaking of the victims, I want to point out my biggest failure in the two years that I’ve reported on the Atomwaffen Division. A viewer chided me for not emphasizing the Jewish connection to Atomwaffen’s motivations.
“By erasing Jews you are inadvertently part of the problem in the media that is allowing the violence and hatred of Jews to be swept under the table. You are saying Jews don’t matter,” the viewer wrote, at the same time thanking KING 5 for helping expose Atomwaffen.
She is absolutely right. My early stories failed to explain the heart of Atomwaffen’s (and, indeed, the Nazi party’s) goal of Jewish elimination.
My apologies for that.
For the Jewish victims of Cole and the Atomwaffen Division, the fear and pain they must feel are at a deeper level than I will ever know.
Some of those victims I may not even be aware of, because they have chosen to stay silent during the prosecution.
But I salute three Jewish people who stood up to Cole – literally, in the courtroom – and what he represents.
Hilary Bernstein spent 14 years, most of it as director, of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Seattle.
When she left the ADL in 2019, she was replaced by Miri Cypers. Cypers’ husband, David Rosenbaum, is the deputy mayor of Mercer Island.
All three of these people received letters and posters that Cole personally designed, filled with swastikas, Molotov cocktails and menacing figures in threats that suggested Atomwaffen could attack them in their homes.
The prosecution had a strong case against Cole, but I believe the reason he’s going to prison for seven years for technically non-violent crimes is because those brave people stood up and eloquently told their stories to the judge and jury.
Finally, a word about journalism.
Like Atomwaffen, hate groups want to operate in the shadows.
Cole’s defense was, in part, that despite his hateful beliefs he is entitled to free speech and is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
He crossed the line and broke the law. That case has been settled and sentenced.
However, this story makes me appreciate my chosen profession.
Hate groups routinely make the argument that they are exercising free speech. Just because they are not breaking the letter of the law does not exonerate them from the scrutiny of the media. In fact, it’s our job to investigate and report on events and trends in our society.
Cole and Atomwaffen first came to the public’s attention because of outstanding reporting by ProPublica and PBS Television. Their stories were of tremendous importance as journalists sought to warn America of the rising tide of hate.
We know there are more Kaleb Coles out there. There are also dedicated reporters who are trying to find them.