Ignoring hate does not make it disappear

April 30, 2006|By Liz Thompson

There are stories we pursue that we dread before the reporter asks the first question.

These are important stories; stories that need to be told.

But we know that people will misunderstand why we are writing them or why the stories are placed where they are in the paper.

Such was the case with Wednesday's story about a planned Ku Klux Klan rally at Antietam National Battlefield.

We learned from the organization's "commander," Gordon Young, that the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had received a permit to hold a rally in June at the Mumma Farmstead. We confirmed it through battlefield Superintendent John Howard.

As reporter Karen Hanna worked on the story, several editors began a discussion that continued, off and on, for the rest of the day: Where and how will we play this story?


Every journalist I know is a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. As a group, I think most journalists would argue that every person has a right to express his or her opinion, even when that message is as appalling as the one sent by the KKK.

A decade ago, faced with the news that the KKK was planning a rally at one of the most historic sites related to the Civil War, we might not have run this story at all. In years past, we covered Klan events and did not write about them afterward. Or, in the not-so-distant past, we might have written the story, but placed it on one of the inside news pages.

In this case, we made the decision to put this story on our front page for several reasons.

First, this is a national park. It belongs to all of us. Having the KKK use it to spread their message of hate is sort of like having them gather in our backyards. It's an invasion and is personally abhorrent.

Second, this is a national park that commemorates the bloodiest day of the Civil War. Our country began a dramatic change during and following the Civil War, a change that hopefully is continuing today and one that is moving us toward a country that is colorblind and tolerant of all people.

And finally - and possibly most important - we made the decision to put the story on the front page because ignoring hate does not make it go away. In fact, apathy is the food that feeds hate.

Many years ago, I interviewed Morris Dees, one of two attorneys who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971. Based in Montgomery, Ala., and initially a small civil rights law firm, the organization that Dees and his partner, Joe Levin, developed has become well-known for its opposition to hate groups. The center tracks hate groups and hate crimes, and provides tolerance education programs. You can find its Web site at

According to the center's Web site, at least eight blacks, three whites, three gays, three Jews and one Latino become hate-crime victims every day.

The center's position on hate groups is clear.

"In the face of hate, silence is deadly. Apathy will be interpreted as acceptance - by the perpetrators, the public and, worse, the victims. If left unchallenged, hate persists and grows," according to the center's tolerance education Web site.

The center is not advocating that we all rush out to the battlefield in June and scream at the KKK. It does advocate holding unity rallies, much as a group did here two years ago when the KKK held a rally in Sharpsburg.

We put the story on the front page so people could decide whether they wanted to ignore it or stand up and say, "I don't believe what they believe."

You can't counter hate if you don't know it has shown up in your backyard.

Liz Thompson is city editor of The Herald-Mail. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7682, or by e-mail at

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