THE recent desecration of Jewish graves at a cemetery in Carpentras, France, gave me a very uneasy sense of d'ej`a vu - not just because it was similar to so many other hate crimes perpetrated every year, but because it brought me back to a day in the spring of my senior year in high school. That spring day, a Friday morning in April in the quiet Rhode Island suburb where I had lived since my birth, my family and I awoke to find a cross burned onto our front lawn. Though it was barely 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, and my father and I could remove nearly all traces of it with a shovel and a hoe, it shook my family deeply. Being Jewish in a predominantly Christian town had suddenly become an issue.
It was difficult not to think the worst. My mother was certain this was the work of a neo-Nazi subculture thriving clandestinely in our town. But after a week of investigation, a detective with the local police force proved, to my utter shock, that it was the work of two of my classmates.
As they were under 18, the law could not prosecute these two young men, and the school chose not to expel them. Left to share classes and graduation with them, I worried that I would leave my high school on a bitter and disillusioned note.
The reality was quite different. The episode precipitated a series of productive discussions on the evils of bigotry. Looking back, I realize that the administration could not have forwarded the cause of racial tolerance any better if it had made us take a course on it. Among students there was a rallying behind the colors of pluralism and a sense of cohesion that we had never felt before.
The affair made me appreciate that while hate crimes are senseless and ugly, they are not, ironically enough, without positive consequences. In their own twisted way they can even bring people together. I saw this in the fallout from the cross-burning on my own front lawn, and I saw this in France in the days following the Carpentras desecration.
For one thing, hate crimes shock into action the silent majority that abhors racism. Some 200,000 French people, including all of the country's major politicians, marched to express their outrage about Carpentras two days after the event. The desecration roused the French populace to an unambiguous denouncement of anti-Semitism. In my school, after the cross-burning incident the administration amended the school's by-laws when nearly everyone with a pen handy signed a petition calling for a stronger stand against racism. The cost of fighting racism is eternal vigilance, and hate crimes can rejuvenate that vigilance.
They also spark the sorts of discussion, in the press and among people, that prevent racism from growing. A few months after the cross was burned onto my lawn, several teachers put together a forum on racial tolerance that to this day is an annual event. The night after the Carpentras desecration, French TV stations were running documentaries on the Holocaust and newspapers were running articles on the history of anti-Semitism.
Often such events lead people to the mistaken belief that the virulent, headline-grabbing racists are the most worrying and destructive agents of bigotry. To be sure, there are far too many people in this world willing to paint swastikas on synagogues. They are but a fraction of the racist population, though, and are out in the open where society can confront them.
The truly insidious racists are the ones you do not read about. These are the armchair bigots, the people whose racism one can rarely detect but which infects society in surreptitious and corrupting ways. They perpetrate racism by creating an atmosphere in which bigotry's crasser disciples can flourish. They are dangerous both because there are so many of them and because, unlike their more zealous counterparts, they would prefer to allow their poison to spread unnoticed.
Hate crimes make life difficult for this breed of racist. They serve as a reminder of the logical and ugly conclusions to which such thinking leads. Confronted with a repulsive bit of racial arson, it is harder for the armchair bigot to say that he is merely playing with matches. But even if such events do not provoke self-examination, they recast racism in its most disreputable light.
The psychic toll of these attacks is great. It is terribly unsettling to be reminded that people seethe with racial hatred and are capable of venting it in such repugnant ways. But racism loves silence; if nothing is heard about it for a long enough time, it thrives. There is rarely more noise about the evils of racism than following a truly stupid hate crime. While I dearly wish that noise could be generated some other way, listening to my classmates and listening to the people of France come together in a chorus of condemnation was still somehow music to my ears.