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Contemplating hate criminals: Expert panel takes a hard look

November 12, 1999

Whoever vandalized the B'Nai Abraham synagogue on Baltimore Street in Hagerstown on Sept. 17, it probably wasn't a youngster out to commit a prank.

Based on the vandal's use of the number 88, the perpetrator may have been a member of an organized hate group, according to FBI agent John Silvester, who explained that because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, some groups use 88 as shorthand for "Heil Hitler," the greeting used by the Nazis during World War II.

Silvester made the comment during this past Wednesday's symposium on hate crimes, organized by the B'Nai Abraham congregation and Rabbi Janice Garfunkel.

Its panel of experts included Silvester, the FBI's civil rights supervisor for Maryland and Delaware; David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith.

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Also speaking were John Hull, of the Washington County Board of Education and the Rev. Don Stevenson of the Washington County Council of Churches.

The meeting was organized in part because the vandals targeted the synagogue on the Friday before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year. No one could remember such an incident ever happening, which prompted people to wonder: Is this just the bad behavior of some misguided youth, or a sample of worse things to come?

Silvester provided some reassurance, saying that in Maryland, there've been very few incidents directed at houses of worship. And based on FBI experience, those who commit such crimes usually share three traits: They're not very smart, they tend to brag about what they've done and once they're caught, they tend to turn on their accomplices.

The Anti-Defamation League's Friedman told the assembled crowd that "I don't know if you appreciate what's happening tonight."

The coming together, the speaking out as a community in forums such as this is precisely what a community needs to do to combat hate crimes, Friedman said.

"Hate crimes, as John (Silvester) said, occur in every county, and a county has to be judged on how it responds," he said.

The Friedman laid out some facts, based on his 15 years' service with the Anti-Defamation League:

- The perpetrators of the worst hate crimes are members of organized groups, and rarely commit just one crime.

- Most people who commit hate crimes live, work or go to school in the neighborhood where the crime occurred, and many are young people.

To combat hate crimes, report them to police without fail, Friedman said, and give officers any written material the describes a racist or anti-government group's agenda.

Watch what your children are doing on the Internet, he said, because hate groups have hundreds of sites, many with "chat rooms" manned by someone experienced in turning an alienated teen-ager into a convert.

Finally, when a neighbor becomes a victim, it's up to the community and its institutions to reach out, Friedman said, to comfort that person and tell them they're not alone and that the community won't tolerate what was done to them.

Chief Smith echoed Friedman's request to pass along any material promoting hate groups' agendas. And Smith said, if an incident happens, as much as those who've been victimized might want to remove any trace of what happened, don't move too quickly.

"Just give our detectives a couple of hours to re-process the scene," the chief said.

Hull, a longtime school board official, said part of the answer is educating children about tolerance, an effort which is beginning in a new program called "Character Counts!"

It's also important to reach out to children who may be susceptible to anti-social or racist philosophies, Hull said.

"There are an awful lot of kids out there who are not connected with anything or anybody," he said.

The Rev. Don Stevenson spoke last, saying that he came to the forum with "more passion that data about hate."

He called for an education that goes beyond facts, that reaches out to the human heart and reminds those in the community that to hate another human being is really to hate God.

He called on the city's institutions to reach out with compassion, saying that he did not mean a soft, yielding approach, but a tough approach that says that certain behaviors won't be tolerated.

To do that, he said, it will be necessary for some of the communities of faith to call their members "out of the bunkers of privacy."

At the end, one member of the audience asked possible next steps. A member of Pennsylvania's Klan Watch offered to help set up a local chapter.

My own small prescription is to do what I've tried to do with my own children: Take them to places and events, like the annual banquet of the Washington County NAACP, that show them that there are people out there who are in many ways just like them, and not at all like the stories and jokes they might hear about Jews, African-Americans or whatever ethnic group you want them to learn about. Because we did that, I have some beautiful memories and the knowledge that when some fool tells them a racist joke, they'll know better than to laugh.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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