Crime, by definition, is something to be ashamed of. In one form or another it entails a violation of the law, of societal norms and of standards of morality; it reveals the worst of human nature. The authors of such acts know this, even when they rationalize or deny it. Indeed, that is why they do so, aside from the practical motive of evading justice or reducing punishment.
But even heinous crimes such as murder and robbery are sometimes committed in broad daylight, either out of criminal necessity or sheer brazenness.
Other crimes are reserved for the middle of the night, not only to escape capture, but because of the ignominy of the crime itself.
Cemetery desecration is such a crime. It is so shameful that it is unthinkable to do by the light of day, when someone might be looking.
So it happened last weekend in Glen Carbon, Illinois. Sometime between 1:40 and 2:20 a.m., according to a police report, someone stole into the Sunset Hills Estates cemetery and spray-painted swastikas on as many as 200 gravestones.
Mark Johnson, the grounds superintendent, discovered the night’s work at about 7:15 a.m. The shocking scene was the first he ever saw on such a scale at the cemetery, he said.
Usually we attribute such deeds to hatred. In the case of swastikas, the Nazi symbol is an all-too-well-known sign of hatred against Jews. But Sunset Hills is not a Jewish cemetery — not an obvious target for anti-Semites.
Rather, it was described in media reports as a “non-denominational” cemetery. Which raises the question of motive.
At this stage, before the culprits are caught, the reason cannot be known for sure. But here, Johnson provided a clue. He said he believed the desecration was timed to coincide with the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend.
Large numbers of people will be coming to the gravesites to pay their respects to loved ones, he said. “I think they probably knew what they were doing,” he added of whoever committed the vandalism.
In fact, some 1,600 veterans are buried in the cemetery.
“It’s just unfortunate that they’re doing it this time of year, because it’s Memorial Day. That’s a special day for us,” Johnson said.
That, of course, was the point. To time it so as to cause as much pain and anguish as possible. To a certain extent, that hate objective was largely thwarted, as several dozen volunteers reportedly arrived at the site to help cemetery staff scrub the hated symbol from the gravestones, while others brought food for the workers. Most of the paint was expected to have been cleaned off before the Memorial Day visitors would arrive.
This was a hate crime, but not specifically against Jews. It was, at least based on the evidence so far, a hate crime against those who fought for America, a hate crime against the principles of freedom they fought for and against America itself.
Many of those buried there no doubt fought in World War II against Nazi Germany. Hence, the swastika, the symbol of hate directed against all who fought the Nazis and all who suffered and died at their hands.
In the final analysis, whether the hatred stems from anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism or some other unfathomable sickness, all the country’s cemeteries must be protected from these fiends of the night.
Police said they arrested a 34-year-old man suspected in the incident, and it is to be hoped that the case will soon be solved. But in the long run, it might be in order to conduct a broad survey of security measures at cemeteries. There have been too many such desecrations in recent years, in particular at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and elsewhere.
It is not enough to punish the offenders; everything possible must be done to prevent this offense from being carried out in the first place. If more security patrols and surveillance cameras are needed, they should be installed.
After the horrendous vandalism in St. Louis and Philadelphia last year, it was recognized that new measures might be required.
“There’s always been a presumption that cemeteries are sacred grounds and that no one will try to harm them,” said Dan Brodsky, chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America. “If this is a beginning of a new trend, we will need to rethink how we protect our cemeteries,” Brodsky said at the time.
Perhaps that time has come. The desecration of cemeteries is an offense not only to the Jewish people and to America, but to everything decent and holy. The cemeteries need protection.