In both Europe and America, racist hate groups have become more than an embarrassing nuisance. They're seen as a threat to the task of creating a more tolerant society.
A jury in Idaho last week slapped a multimillion dollar civil judgment on the leaders of one of the nation's most extreme white-supremacist groups, Aryan Nations. The suit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is trying to bankrupt such bigoted groups with legal actions.
Across the Atlantic, 14 of the European Union's 15 member nations lifted their diplomatic sanctions against Austria on Tuesday (see story, page 7). The sanctions were imposed after Austria's far-right Freedom Party, led by Jrg Haider, joined a coalition government.
In both cases, attempts were made to suppress groups appealing to hate, in hopes of eliminating the hate. This approach doesn't always work as well as a less combative, more educational effort might. It's a bit like fighting fire with fire, when perhaps a little water might do.
For the 14 EU nations, the sanctions failed in their most obvious purpose: to oust the Freedom Party, or at least convince Austrians to vote them out. If anything, the diplomatic isolation only rallied many Austrians in nationalist resentment at this intrusion into their democratic process.
But it was an open secret that many of the 14 nations were really using the sanctions to send a signal to their own countries, where far-right politicians have been able to play to public concerns over immigrants, refugees, and minorities.
The Freedom Party's actions in Austria's new government were not found to reflect their earlier anti-immigrant rhetoric. The other EU nations thus decided to retreat.
But they were also worried that the sanctions might push the Dutch to vote against adopting the euro in a Sept. 25 referendum. And Austria itself had the power to slow down badly needed EU reforms.
At root, the EU found that it's difficult to define its goal of living by "common European values." It still needs rules to decide what to do when one nation deviates from that less-than-universal and vague ideal.
The EU has decided to welcome new members from most of Eastern and Central Europe, perhaps even Turkey. The prospect of an increased wave of foreigners moving into Western Europe has become a political issue easily exploited by right-wingers. The EU has been lax in preparing people for this integration.
In the US, schools and many other civic-minded groups are actively teaching tolerance of immigrants and minorities through reason and appeals to common humanity.
In most cases when a nation must deal with hate, this approach will, over the long run, accomplish more than lawsuits or political ostracism.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society