The Island Now

Our Views: Responding to hate speech

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Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2016 10:11 am

The swastika drawn on the wall in a boys bathroom at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington two weeks ago appeared to be written in pencil and covered less than a third of a tile.

After the swastika was reported by a student, the school immediately closed the bathroom and cleaned the wall.

Kathleen Mooney, the Port Washington school district superintendent, then responded forcefully, saying, “This type of behavior is completely unacceptable, does not represent who we are as a school district or a community, and will not be tolerated.” 

Mooney also praised the student who reported the incident and announced an investigation to determine who drew the swastika

In short, the school district’s was proactive and forceful.

But though the drawing of swastika may be as the school district called it — an “isolated incident” —  more needs to be done. 

Especially at a time when hate speech and symbols of hate have become far too common and far too accepted. And especially in response to a symbol under which six million Jews died and a world war was fought that claimed the lives of 60 million people, including 400,000 American service members.

Just a day after the swastika was found in Port Washington, the National Policy Institute — a think tank that is part of the so-called “alt-right” movement, which includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites — held a gathering at the federally owned Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

A video of the meeting, which came in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprising election victory, showed the leader of the institute shouting “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” as some of the people in attendance gave the Nazi salute. This did not take place in a vacuum.

Incidents of hate speech directed at Mexicans, Muslims, blacks and Jews rose dramatically after Trump’s election.

All of which should come as no surprise.

During his campaign, Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists,”  said a judge should be disqualified from hearing a case about Trump University because of his Mexican descent, proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the country, mocked a disabled reporter, singled out violence in black communities, criticized women on the basis of their looks and ran advertising linking Jews to global financiers hostile to America. 

And after he was elected, Trump appointed Steve Bannon, the former head of a website linked to the “alt-right,” as his chief White House strategist. The website’s headlines have included “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”

Trump and his campaign have maintained he was merely advocating an “America First” policy that sought to secure the country’s borders and protect the country against violent extremists, that he had no antipathy to any particular group and he wouldn’t be constrained by “political correctness." The reaction of extremist groups to Trump’s statements seems to say otherwise.

The Trump transition team initially issued a tepid response to the National Policy Institute meeting — at a time Trump was on Twitter blasting the cast of “Hamilton” for its call to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to respect the country’s diversity and “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

"President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected because he will be the leader for every American,” Trump-Pence transition spokesman Bryan Lanza said in a statement.

Trump issued a stronger condemnation a few days later at an interview at The New York Times.

“I disavow and condemn them,” Trump said.

After a campaign hailed by white nationalists with little or no discouragement by Trump, his disavowal is a good starting point if he wants to be the leader for every American. We hope he goes further, but to say we have our doubts is more than an understatement.

Even if he is sincere, it will take more than Trump alone to undo the divisiveness of the campaign.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s response to the meeting of the National Policy Institute instructs us both in how unspeakable acts begin and how to prevent them from happening again.

 “The Holocaust did not begin with killings: it began with words,” the museum said. “The museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.”

We hope this is a lesson learned well beyond a high school in Port Washington.

Welcome to the discussion.