Intolerable acts of intolerance
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2006
Days before the nation paused to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader silenced by an assassin’s bullet almost 38 years ago, vandals in Montgomery County reminded us that racial and religious ignorance and intolerance remain alive.
County police say vandals, perhaps with ties to a white-supremacist group, last week spray-painted what they described as ‘‘ethnic slurs and ethnically offensive symbols” at the Seneca Community Church in Germantown, St. Mark United Methodist Church in Boyds, two Gaithersburg public schools and the historic Boyds Negro School. The members of the two churches are mostly African Americans.
The vandalism followed by only days reports from a Gaithersburg synagogue that its inflatable menorah displays were slashed and that someone took a sign from the synagogue’s property.
All the cases are being classified by the authorities as hate crimes, although police cannot link the menorah damage to the upcounty graffiti and aren’t sure whether the Boyds and Gaithersburg school incidents are related.
Following standard procedure, all local hate-crime reports are sent to the FBI.
The police believe the spray-paint graffiti, which included swastikas and ‘‘WAR,” could be the work of a group of people, possibly linked to the California-based White Aryan Resistance. The initials appeared only at the schools and it was the first time signs of the white-separatist group have appeared in Montgomery County, according to the police.
There have been calls for harsh penalties for those arrested and convicted. At the same time, in the spirit of Dr. King, there have been prayers and pleas for forgiveness.
Rather than brush the episodes quietly aside — as is sometimes done in cases when it’s believed that giving publicity to such crimes only stokes the miscreant thrill-seekers — church, community and elected leaders gathered last Thursday in the sunshine of an unusually mild winter’s day to condemn the ‘‘hatemongoring.”
Then on Sunday, members of St. Mark painted over the graffiti at the nearby school, a symbolic show that such acts won’t destroy the spirit of the community.
A Hate Crime Tipster Fund has been set up to pay rewards for information that leads to an arrest and conviction and the Christian Life Center in Gaithersburg has agreed to provide matching funds, up to $2,000, for the rewards. (The number is 1-866-411-8477).
If there is any good news about these episodes, it is that they remain rare, and are almost universally denounced. No decent segment of our society will tolerate racial hatred.
Last year, county police reported 47 criminal and non-criminal cases classified as hate crimes. In 2004, there were 40 reported hate crimes, down from 60 or so in earlier years.
Yet revulsion remains on several levels: If the graffiti was the work of a band of joy-riding teens, too immature to know what they were doing and its context in history, that’s a sad commentary on the values being shared or modeled by parents and the lessons of tolerance being taught in school and church. Somebody’s not getting through.
If the damage turns out to be the work of an organized group that’s trying to infiltrate the region, that’s a far more insidious problem. Police and prosecutors need to bring all they have to fight the group, while not trampling on the constitutionally protected right of free speech. There can be a fine line.
There will come a time for mending and forgiveness, but first the message has to go out that hate crimes will always be unacceptable and that those responsible will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. If not, the lessons that Dr. King gave his life to teach will have atrophied away.