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Maybe it’s time to call in the FBI to investigate the Alzouma incident

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The Watertown City Police department said yesterday that it is not investigating as a hate crime the vandalism done to Issa Alzouma’s vehicle.

To quote Dan Flatley’s story: Detective Richard J. Purvis said that, despite the note, his investigation has not uncovered anything to indicate that the vandalism was related to “religion, race or color.”

The note, of course, told Mr. Alzouma to get out of Watertown and was laced with foul expletives and even more foul racial epithets. Unfortunately, I can’t quote the note exactly; in the past, the Times policy was to quote racial epithets because it was our belief that only by seeing the words in print can the adequacy of their vileness be seen. I still believe that, and I believe that should still be our policy.

And that apparent change in policy may be emblematic of the problem here: we may not as a community be taking this incident seriously enough because we simply do not want to acknowledge that such a level of hatred exists in the north country.

Like the police, if we ignore the obvious signs, it absolves us of responsibility. But please be aware that nothing absolves us of the responsibility. Hatred based on race or creed or color — creed and color both play into this nasty incident — can only flourish when good people turn their backs on it.

The Watertown police seem to have confused investigation with prosecution in their decision that this is not a hate crime. Prosecuting alleged offenders under the hate-crime statute requires a level of proof to gain a conviction. Investigating under the conditions present here, however, would seem to demand that all evidence be used to find the culprit. In denying there are hate-crime elements here, it’s hard to see how the city police can adequately investigate the crime.

Equally disturbing is that the police can point to evidence that the incident is “related to tension at the workplace” as an indication that it is not a hate crime. There is the distinct possibility that bigotry exists in nearly every workplace of any size, so it is disingenuous to imply that “tension in the workplace” and the elements of a hate crime are mutually exclusive. Indeed, human nature being what it is, racial bias in the workplace would seem to be a ripe environment to spawn a hate crime, if that bias overflows outside of the office.

I have had acquaintances who I would have liked to have made friends, but that I ended up cutting associations with because I’ve discovered within them the burning coal of bigotry. One in particular, a golfing buddy, hid his smoldering hatred very well, but when it finally erupted, it was ugly and untenable and as a result, I haven’t seen him in 35 years. And don’t want to now.

You can’t know when the long-burning hatred of bigotry will burst into flame. Sometimes, you can’t know it’s even there until it flares into sight. The note left at Mr. Alzouma’s damaged car is that suddenly raging flame. Whether it started in the workplace or not, the reality is that it was fostered by the kind of hate that is hard to bear.

I have a lot of confidence in the city police force. In my nearly 20 years here, the department has, by and large, shown itself to be professional. But if the department is confusing prosecution with investigation, if it is writing this event off as not a hate crime simply because no one has as yet shown that ugly flame of hate, then it probably is time to call in the FBI, which has a world more experience in investigating this type of crime.

If a hate crime in Watertown goes unpunished or even merely unacknowledged, it will be telling the closet racists and disguised bigots that their hate is OK. And it’s not OK, and every day, every one of us has to make that known — from the police on down.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. You can reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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