As a community, we must move beyond silence

04/19/2014 5:00 PM

04/18/2014 5:51 PM

We’ve been primed, since the ancients, to view the world as a backdrop for villains and heroes. Life is good — until those with viciously conflicting interests come unwanted onto the scene.

F. Glenn Miller (also known as Frazier Glenn Cross Jr.), charged last week with capital murder and first-degree murder in the fatal shootings of three good and innocent people, has been a villain for many years. His ugly turn toward virulent racism and anti-Semitism in the 1970s got him bounced from the military and has defined his despicable life ever since.

Here is a hero: Paul Temme, who witnessed the first two shootings outside the Jewish Community Center, stared Miller down, eluded a bullet and provided details that helped law enforcement officers capture the suspect within 20 minutes.

As we have seen time after too many times, tragedy binds people and communities. “All Americans stand with the people of Overland Park,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said from the theater stage at the Jewish Community Center on Thursday morning in the midst of a community service of “unity and hope.” A rabbi evoked a hallowed phrase from the Book of Leviticus, the one that urges us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Comforting words and neighborly deeds are essential acts and illustrate the best of our human nature.

But there is much harder work to do in recognizing the real threat to society that exists in the shadows. As Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff also remarked: There is great power at times in silence, but silence will not heal and “silence is no solution.”

Glenn Miller might have lived quietly in southwest Missouri, but members of his communities of Aurora and Marionville knew very well what he thought. Marionville’s mayor, Dan Clevenger, has even shared his own overt anti-Semitism in recent weeks, expressing his belief that Jews control corporate America, the Federal Reserve and government. Silence should not be the response; Clevenger deserves public repudiation.

Although Miller occupied a deranged planet of his own making, it’s vital to remember he was not a lone terrorist wolf. He was well known in the hate world. And thousands of purported Americans of his ilk live in towns and compounds across the nation seething over their perceived status in a multicultural society they want nothing to do with. Some of them, like Miller, a convicted felon, are well-armed. Some of them live in the metro area, in our two states and in our region. Some of them sling their bile quite publicly on websites or in rallies as we’ve seen in Kansas City.

What can we do rather than stay silent? Here’s a start:

• We must hold federal law enforcement authorities responsible for effectively monitoring known extremists and making sure they, and other convicted felons, do not gain access illegally to weapons. This, of course, is harder than it sounds. No one wants to live in a surveillance state, and without real knowledge of imminent action, law enforcement hardly has the resources to blanket the far-flung network of extremists at all times.

Still, we can demand that prosecutors only cut deals with offenders in exchange for information that truly stunts many more dangerous individuals. If Miller, as has been reported, entered a witness protection program in exchange for testimony that didn’t effectively undercut other notorious offenders, it was a bad deal, and prosecutors should explain how they will improve their odds in the future. A stiffer prison sentence for Miller in the 1980s might have saved three lives here.

• As a community we can band together to publicly denounce hate speech wherever and whenever we hear or see it. Kansas Citians, for example, rallied impressively last fall when a neo-Nazi group gathered here to spread its hate. We must identify Kansas City as a place where anti-Semitism, racism and hate speech are not welcome. Period. We can support the targeted Jewish centers with our presence and contributions, honor the lives that were lost and comfort the families torn asunder and remind ourselves that any victim, regardless of religion or identity group, belongs to all of us.

• As a community we can all learn more about the activities of extremist groups around the country. And we should not shy away from understanding the possible causes, the myths and the recruiting methods that help define the world of hate-mongering. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security drafted an intelligence assessment on right-wing extremism and speculated that because of the poor economy, the election of a black president and other factors it “is likely to grow in strength.” Conservative groups effectively squashed the report, according to some accounts, and led the agency to pull back from examining various strains of domestic terrorism. But knowledge is power, and the light shed on these movements should be more, not less, available.

• While hard-liners continue to thwart sensible and needed gun-reform measures, these three deaths in Overland Park should prompt a new discussion about how easy it remains for felons to obtain firearms. This must stop. Lobby lawmakers to make changes. Demand background checks and waiting periods. If someone acquired weapons on Miller’s behalf, that transaction must be included in the prosecution of the case.

• We can admire and emulate the sharp and focused reactions of Paul Temme, the witness who did not turn away, of the dozens of people who dialed 911 and of the swift and capable response of Overland Park police and other law officers.

• Before Thursday’s service at the Jewish Community Center, Alvin Sykes, an area resident who has tirelessly fought hate crimes for three decades, stood in the lobby and offered his quiet opinion about what must be done. “We have to turn poison,” he said, “into medicine.”

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