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Learning From Crazy Jerry Hanel

Jerry Hanel, the neighbor from hell (KHON News)

A reader writes:

I don’t know if you watch the Investigation Discovery television show Fear Thy Neighbor. If you don’t, I highly recommend it, alongside its spin-off, Fear Thy Roommate. The show explores real-life instances of neighbor disputes that have deadly consequences. It’s a fascinating look at how conflict erupts and both how easily people mismanage such situations and how conflict resolution is so difficult, especially in a society such as ours.

Anyway, a new season just started a few nights ago and I watched the premiere via on-demand earlier today. It concerns the case of a man named Jerry “Jarda” Hanel, who, on January 18, 2020, killed the woman he lived with in a house in Honolulu, severely wounded another residing in the same house, killed two police officers who responded to the incident, then set his house ablaze while still inside of it, cooking off firearm ammunition he had inside, thereby preventing firefighters from putting out the blaze. Ultimately, it destroyed seven homes.

You can read more about this horrific incident (which, strangely, went unnoticed on the Mainland) here and here.

The reason I bring this story to your attention is that the episode shed more light on who Jerry “Yarda” Hanel was. His name is an Anglicized version of his real name, Jaroslav, and he is a native of Communist Czechoslovakia. He served in their military and, eventually, turned himself over to West German authorities and requested asylum in the United States. According to this report, Hanel was living in America by 1985. Eventually, he ended up living in Honolulu with a woman, Lois Cain, who kindly permitted him to reside rent-free in her home in exchange for taking care of all the maintenance and upkeep on the property.

What struck me about this story is how his life in Czechoslovakia and his escape to freedom appears to have affected him. For one, he doesn’t like having pictures taken of him. A lot of us don’t, but it makes more sense in Hanel’s case because he spent so much of his life living in fear and the fact he escaped made him, at least for a time, a potential target of reprisal.

In fact, his paranoia was so powerful that it not only remained almost 30 years following the end of the Cold War, it manifested in bizarre ways. The tragic events of January 18, 2020 were the culmination of years of him harassing both neighbors and random tourists because he believed they were spying on him, calling them “KGB.” In an odd reversal of roles, Hanel went from being the victim of a totalitarian system to being the perpetrator of a totalitarian system in a residential Honolulu neighborhood – he installs cameras all around his house, spending days monitoring his neighbors and others he spots in the vicinity. When he goes outside, he wears Go-Pro cameras, all the while menacing everyone around him.

The whole time I was watching, I kept thinking of your book, Live Not By Lies. After watching the episode, I did some research on Hanel, and lo and behold, I came across this bit from his former attorney:

He thought the secret service and government were tapping his phones; would come into his house and tap him. That kind of thing. He didn’t have cell phones for that reason. He was a little bit of a weird guy, but you would never would expect he’d do what he did today.

What Jaroslav Hanel did that day was unforgiveable. I’m glad he’s dead, because not only was he tortured soul, but he was clearly a menace to society and it’s a shame he had to take so many lives and livelihoods with him. But, at the same time, his story is the ultimate cautionary tale. You mentioned a woman in your book residing in Eastern Europe who didn’t own a smartphone for the exact same reason Hanel didn’t own a cell phone. Neither she nor Hanel are the only people, including in America, who live like this. I know a few of them personally.

Imagine being so traumatized from living under a totalitarianism that you spend your whole life, even in freedom looking over your shoulder. Or thinking you’re constantly being watched to the point you’d deny yourself a convenience that’s made life easier for millions. We in the West consider this flat-out paranoia and totally irrational and we might be right. But, for a country that’s so worried about mental health (especially these days) and exalts victimhood, you’d think Americans and Westerners would be a little more understanding why those of the former Communist-bloc countries are the way they are and why we really need to be more alert to the possibility of totalitarianism arriving in our own societies. The damage that it causes goes far beyond economics and politics, because, as folks like Hannah Arendt point out, the aim of totalitarianism isn’t just to control your actions, but your mind. This is what makes it so lethal.

That damage is also irreversible. How can you trust people when everyone really is out to get your or turn you in? How can you trust the authorities when their goal is to destroy your life once you end up in their crosshairs? We’re constantly told that we need to shut up and listen to the experiences of people who’ve experienced racism, sexism, and everything else the Left puts up a fight over. To that, I say, fine, but we should also shut up and listen to those who’ve lived under Communism, socialism, totalitarianism, and, yes, even cancel culture. To quote a line from the movie Blade Runner, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

Yet, they don’t want to shut up and listen. Instead, the Left flirts with totalitarianism every day, even though they, given their concern for the oppressed and victimhood, should be most worried of all. Totalitarianism produces victims like Jaroslav Hanel, who in turn, unleashes his demons onto the rest of us.

I wonder if we who grew up in a time and in a culture when you did not have to worry that the slightest slip of the tongue around the wrong person could end up with your livelihood destroyed and your reputation wrecked will be able to explain to the young how free we were…

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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