Like the fires of hell, where all love is lost, giant flames licked the sky and mocked the promise of heaven. Even from a distance, the fire on the mountain near Jim Thorpe that July 4 night burned indelibly into my mind.
Red hot scars remain.
I close my eyes and see the burning cross at the rally. I smell the gasoline. I taste the bitterness and know that about 20 years later, hatred lives in our community.
I was younger then, quicker to put myself at risk and face danger that could kill me. I’d been to danger zones elsewhere - Havana and Belfast - and knew that the unknown sometimes attacked when you least expected its ferocity. I knew that sometimes you can’t go home again unless it’s in a box.
But I was home that day of national celebration when the Ku Klux Klan co-sponsored a rally with white supremacist skinheads who joined forces in their resentment and shared threats against those they perceived to be less than human.
The only affection I saw that day was reserved for themselves. Pats o the head greeted a Klan toddler who waddled about the grounds protected in silk swaddling robes. A tiny hood hid the child’s face. The future hid his heart.
Believers had earlier erected the massive cross on a hill in the middle of a field. This wasn’t my first cross burning. I had previously gone undercover in York County to attend another cross burning. Looking like an outlaw biker, I got there early and spent time with the Klan guys who had gathered in silence in the living room of the cabin to watch a small black and white television set.
A Muppets’ episode played.
Then they headed out for their own puppet show.
I knew that great planning went into the ritual that at its peak would light the sky in darkness. I knew that few witnesses, no matter what their politics, would ever forget the quickening pulse and adrenaline that comes when torch touched the juice that fuels the madness.
Incitement is catching.
Standing with a hundred Klan zealots circling a burning cross gave me the feeling that if the Prince of Peace himself had shown up in his long hair and sandals, they’d have hoisted him up high in a heartbeat and pulled out the hammers.
I think these thoughts today because the marauders are still looking for targets.
Hatred lives among us.
And its menace is becoming more and more acceptable as more and more people demonize the vulnerable, singling them out for blame.
African-Americans from New York. Latinos with “gold teeth” and “their hats on sideways” who don’t speak English. Jews. Newborn children whose parents are undocumented immigrants who come to American looking for the dream.
Minorities and other supposed enemies of so-called “Christian identity” patriotism now find themselves in the cross-hairs, sometimes literally. Their enemies have called “Corbett” during the past two days to put the world on notice that they are armed and dangerous and willing to fight back.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting rampage in Arizona, we must address as much as ever – maybe more than ever – the wild emotion that sends the unhinged into our communities with a torch and a gun.
Spreading light is commendable. Setting fire to reason is savage. Creating a raging atmosphere that demonizes the vulnerable is unacceptable.
Standing up to the onslaught is pure self-defense. Advocating liberty and justice for all – including reasonable gun control, amnesty for most undocumented immigrants, affirmative action, affordable health care and peace - is crucial to the continuing progress of the republic.
In these dangerous times, liberal activism is courageous, too.
Stepping aside while militant maniacs run amok also is not acceptable. Our conversation must continue. But some people do not want the tense, raw discussion that must ensue if we ever hope to resolve the insanity that grips our nation. Some people want silence. They ignore the knocks on their neighbors’ doors. They forget that one day the knock might come their way.
We lose whenever talk ceases and gunfire erupts.
I’ve written and talked about bigotry and racism for decades. I’ve taken risks that might have gotten me killed. And I’ll keep taking those risks because liberty and justice for all is always worth the fight.
All I ask you to do, even if you dare not speak out publicly, is look yourself in the mirror and face the darkness in your heart. Spread goodness by example. Stand against hatred whenever it arises.
Then we at least have a chance.
Right now, though, the odds seem against us
Right now, too many people are waving their hammers and looking for nails.