For Europe, a push against the violence of hate

The Continent can learn from Poland’s reaction to the killing of a mayor and the many ways to counter a rise in hate speech.

People stand by a heart shaped with candles as a tribute to slain mayor Pawel Adamowicz in Gdansk, Poland, Jan. 16.

Poland just gave a tender lesson to the rest of Europe on how to deal with hate speech – and its consequences.

On Jan. 14, the mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was assassinated at an annual charity event aimed at bringing Poles together. The killer’s motives, according to most commentators, could easily be attributed to the country’s toxic political climate. Mr. Adamowicz himself had been the object of death threats for his views on immigrants. In a recent interview, he said, “When the language of the elites violates the limits imposed by decency, it causes more and more physical violence.”

The killer said he acted out of anger and revenge, two emotions now common in Europe’s public discourse. So how did Poles respond to such a violent expression of hate?

Thousands joined a silent “march against hatred.” Many others donated blood. Parliament held a minute of silence on Wednesday. In Gdansk, the city whose peaceful protests in the 1980s helped bring down the Soviet empire, people recommitted themselves to the civic values of openness and tolerance that the longtime mayor had espoused.

“My dear Pawel, you were always there to show an open and courageous face, and to stand against evil,” Donald Tusk, the former prime minister who is now president of the European Council, told a crowd.

The deputy mayor of Gdansk, Piotr Kowalczuk, met with the assailant’s family to provide support. “We need to make sure that they don’t fall victims to hate,” he said. The public outcry also compelled police to detain at least 10 people widely known for threatening aggression against public figures.

And to reinforce the self-reflection that often happens after such a tragedy, Polish President Andrzej Duda urged Poles to “examine our consciences.”

Poland’s democracy is sharply divided these days between left and right, creating social tensions and threats on social media. Yet after the killing, many Poles sought antidotes to the political hate. The late mayor’s last words at the charity event have gone viral on social media. “Gdansk is generous, a city of solidarity,” he said. “It’s a wonderful time to share with each other.”

In mourning his murder, Poles have certainly found something to share: a renewal of the civility needed to curb the impulse for hate in public life.

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