Swastika Ethics: 8 Observations On The George Washington University “Hate Crime”


I was recently reminded about the origins of the Nazi swastika, ironically enough, during the Cincinnati funeral service of my dear friend, Georgetown classmate,  lawyer and patriot Mitchell Dale, who died last summer. Looking down during a prayer, I was startled to see the Hindu version of the symbol in a mosaic imbedded in the church floor.

Oddly, the pastor and mourners weren’t arrested.

Yet last month, an unnamed Jewish student placed a small, bronze, Indian swastika on the bulletin board of his Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, in the university’s International House. The building had recently been the target of an unidentified vandal who drew three swastikas on the walls. After posting the swastika, the student stayed close to the bulletin board, intending to discuss it and the previous vandalism with observers. He briefly stepped away, unfortunately for him, and during that period a member of the student’s fraternity saw the swastika and called GWU’s campus police. They  filed a report and took the swastika as evidence. When the student found out the police had been called, he immediately came forward to authorities and said that he had posted the  image to spark a conversation about the ancient symbol, cultural appropriation, messages, perception…as in what used to be called “education.” He said he did not intend to offend anyone, noting in doing so that this was an Indian swastika, not a Nazi one. He had just returned from studying religion in India, and said he became fascinated by the idea that a symbol that was not one of hate could become so defined by hate.

GWU suspended the student and evicted him from university housing pending the outcome of five disciplinary charges. The university also kicked him off campus, and referred the incident to the District of Columbia police for investigation as a potential “hate crime.” He could face expulsion.

Ethics observations:

1. FIRE, Freedom for Individual Rights in Education, is on the case. Thank you, FIRE. FIRE Program Officer and attorney Ari Cohn wrote,

“GWU may not ignore thousands of years of history and effectively forbid all uses of the swastika because it was used by Nazi Germany. It’s ironic that the charges against the student illustrate the very point he was trying to make in the first place—that context is important and there’s much to be learned about the history of the swastika.”

2. Now the Hindu American Foundation is protesting as well. This is the wonderful aspect of diversity, and a warning to institutions and diversity hounds that diversity must cut in all directions, or is a sham. It is discriminatory for a university to demonize and censor an aspect of a world religion’s symbology and culture. Do you think the administrators at GW sufficiently understood this, or just didn’t care, going with what they perceived as the most powerful interest group?

3. The George Washington fiasco comes in the wake of other  colleges  responding to anti-Semitic swastika vandalism, but that shouldn’t have mattered. A freshman at the University of Missouri at Columbia was arrested last month for swastika graffiti and anti-Semitic vandalism. Other campuses have had swastika incidents in the current academic year, such as Emory University, the University of California at Davis and Northwestern University. That does not justify  GW attempting to frame this incident in reference to  others. In doing so, the school is aping the media coverage of incidents of alleged police violence. Journalists and activists are desperately trying to squeeze racism into the Freddie Gray death, for example, even though three of the six officers involved were black. The argument is that black officers are co-opted by the racist culture in police departments, which suggests, insultingly, that blacks are incapable of maintaining their own values. A black officer may absorb his police force’s hostility to the criminals they encounter in a predominantly African-American area, but that is not the same thing as racism. So far, there is no evidence that suggests race was a factor in Gray’s death. It is similarly absurd to suggest that a Jewish student was attempting to make an anti-Jewish statement with a Hindu symbol.

4. Unethical Jerk #1 in this scenario: the student who reported his fellow fraternity member without doing his own investigation. When I was in college, my freshman roommate, who had a dry and risky sense of humor, was amazed at a grim quote in a sociology text book from a Jewish bigot who said, “I believe the time will come when we have to kill the bastards.”  My roomie made a poster out of the quote, which he saw as a warning of the depth of hate in some parts of the nation and also as grimly humorous, and hung it in our room. Shortly after he put it up, another student, a friend who was Jewish, saw the poster and we had a late night bull session about the significance of the quote: he was in the same course, and knew the quote’s origin. Then he said, “I’d take that down. I know you guys, but it could convince someone who doesn’t that you’re Nazis.” We took it down. He handled the situation properly, fairly and ethically.

5. Unethical Jerk #2: the student who posted the symbol without a clear explanation. I refuse to believe he wasn’t being deliberately provocative; he just was more provocative than he expected to be. In this he was recklessly breaching the Second Niggardly Principle:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

He’s learning this the hard way….too hard.

6. The GW administrators are cowards.  This was an over-reaction that cannot be squared with anything approaching the values of higher education. Nineteen organizations had written to GW President Stephen Knapp, saying he had not done enough about previous incidents, so he allowed his staff to go bonkers over this one, which was materially different. The most that should have happened, assuming that the trouble-making complaining student turned what should have been an informal dispute into an official one, was to tell the offending student to use better judgment, and learn there are better and smarter ways to provoke a discussion on the effects of terrorism than throwing a Molotov cocktail.

7. Prof. Eugene Volokh, a free speech expert, has stated that he doesn’t  think  universities that claim to protect free expression should even suspend the students who intend to post swastikas as an expression of anti-Semitism. “That’s a First Amendment principle for public universities, and an academic free expression principle for private ones,” he says. I’m not sure I agree: given what the Nazis did to Jews, I would call a swastika a threat, just like hanging a noose or posting a burning cross is a threat to African-Americans. But he makes a strong point about the slippery slope and the threat to free speech when a symbol is essentially censored based on perceived offensiveness, writing,

“But on the facts of this case, the suspension seems especially hard to justify. And it is especially chilling of other kinds of speech that people might interpret, rightly or wrongly, as offensive, whether Confederate flags, Redskins paraphernalia, or anything else of that sort.”

8. Calling this a hate crime is particularly alarming and wrong. Of course, the whole concept of hate crime is unethical and an attempt at thought control: hate is not a crime, and what is a crime isn’t more of one because it was motivated or expresses hate. The swastika isn’t even a plausible hate crime under the absurd definition of hate crime. You can’t commit a hate crime if you don’t hate anyone. (If I were that student, I confess that I would hate the GWU administrators. I think I  may hate them anyway. Conservative commentator Kevin Williamson at the National Review takes his indignation at this episode to some places I wouldn’t [ That’s a correction: the earlier version inexplicably said “would”] go, but he also makes some trenchant points, sharply as usual. He concludes, in his brief that this is a typical instance of the Left using power to constrain freedom of thought:

“Thus thought and speech and various kinds of ordinarily lawful behavior must be restricted or even criminalized. And if the environment is not in fact convincingly toxic, then you can always invent a lot of fake hate crimes or terrorize your victims with fictitious rape allegations. Every petty tyranny requires a great fiction to justify itself: that one in three women in college will be raped, that George Washington University students are one or two Hindu religious symbols away from reenacting Kristallnacht on H Street. It is embarrassing. It is uncivilized. And it is the future.”


Pointer: Fred, who is on a roll…

Sources: The FIRE, Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, Asian Age, National Review

13 thoughts on “Swastika Ethics: 8 Observations On The George Washington University “Hate Crime”

  1. Not closely related, but this reminds me of the fact that we used Zyklon to fumigate ships up until the early 90’s. It surprised me to see this stuff in our restricted use pesticides locker, along with a drum of DDT. Specifically, it surprised me that DEGESCH wasn’t closed after WWII, or that nobody protests its continued existence, considering who they sold this stuff to. Sorry to go off-topic, but I figured I’d mention it before I forgot.

  2. “…takes his indignation at this episode to some places I [wouldn’t] go..” Is that what you meant about Kevin Williamson?

  3. I’ve often wondered just how far the “hate crime” excuse for attacking the First Amendment will proceed. It’s interesting that the U.S. Senate has the fasces of Rome carved into the podium. Wasn’t this also the symbol of Mussolini’s Italy and the origin of the term “fascism”? Where’s the outrage? Apparently, these attacks and accusations are only to be directed at “little people” in settings where they cannot effectively fight back- a whip of intimidation to be laid across someone’s back to maintain political correctness. Since the concept now permeates academia from kindergarten onward, one can only imagine where it will next be employed.

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