August 24, 2000
'Intent matters' in swastika incident
To the Editor:
"Knowledge dispels fear"
appears prominently on the Royal Air Force medallion once proudly worn by my
English uncle. He, no doubt, would have pleased Stephen R. Covey, author of
"Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," whose Habit Number One is:
Seek First to Understand.
I thought of my uncle (and Stephen
Covey) recently after reading in the TAB about an incident that occurred at the
July meeting of the Newton Human Rights Commission ["Uproar ends commission
meeting," July 20]. Brenda Loew, a Jewish woman whose family includes
Holocaust survivors, following discussion of recent alleged anti-Semitic
portrayals of swastikas in the city, held up her own sketch of one, intending to
demonstrate that that symbol need not always be one of anti-Semitism or hatred.
For her efforts, Loew was accused of committing a "hate crime," the
Newton Police were summoned, a police report filed. I found this incident to be
a chilling one that reminded me of when I was a child of perhaps four. I, like
Loew, had sketched a swastika. I proudly held it up for my German mother to see.
She said: "That is a symbol of hatred! Never draw that again!"
Decades later, I began studying the
history of Nazi Germany. As a result, I now understand more clearly the emotions
and motivations of that time. Horrific crimes were committed. The swastika was
omnipresent, misappropriated and metamorphosed (for Nazi victims) into hate
itself, contrary to its universal original meaning of good fortune and
abundance. Look closely at the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem - the
swastika is there. Buddhist and Hindu shrines, First Editions of Kipling, early
coinage - it is there. What does the Brenda Loew incident tell us about the
intentions of the Newton Human Rights Commission?
Seeking first to understand the incident
better and especially the point of view of the members of the Commission, I
telephoned City Hall, and was advised that the intent of the individual does not
matter, only the action, and the swastika is always a symbol of hatred. Alarmed,
I called the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and was assured
that intent is important. In fact, state law defines a "hate crime" as
" ... any criminal act coupled with overt actions motivated at least in
part by racial, religious, ethnic ... bias." and requires of a perpetrator
" ... specific intent to put his victim in fear because of his or her
membership in a protected class." Absent such intent, there can be no
"hate crime." In letters to the Tab, however, Lynn D. Goldsmith,
commission chairman, states: "No matter what the intent of the person
displaying the swastika, there remains no doubt in the minds of most people that
a swastika is a symbol of hatred .... "
"Knowledge dispels fear." What
can be made of this incident? Brenda Loew, it seems to me, has moved beyond a
narrow, historic misuse of an ancient symbol. Others, perhaps not seeking
freedom from intimidation but rather a continuation of the victimhood of their
ancestors, are themselves now guilty of perpetuating the fear.
Finally, to quote Lynn Goldsmith once
again: " ... there remains no doubt in the minds of most people that a
swastika is a symbol of hatred .... " "Most people" implies a
minority, however large or small, who disagree. Is the right of Brenda Loew to
begin to let go of historic baggage rather than remain in perpetual paralysis
unimportant? Is the right of a Buddhist, Hindu, perhaps an Orthodox Jew, to view
a shrine or temple (the "Wailing Wall") incorporating a swastika or
swastikas in their design, intending the older optimistic meaning, unimportant?
Should they be "haters" by definition? I don't want to believe this.
George H. Foord Jr.
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