- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

There's nothing like the sight of a swastika to ruin a perfectly nice Sunday drive down Main Street.
I suppose my husband and I could have just driven on by the display of Nazi memorabilia spread out on the lawn in front of the antique gun store in downtown Purcellville, Va., where we make our home. Maybe it was the incongruity of the black death symbol flapping in the breeze of a beautiful late spring day that made us stop. Or perhaps it was the sickening juxtaposition of the crimson Nazi flag draped near a POW/MIA banner, commemorating those American soldiers held or missing in Vietnam.
The conversation with the owner of the artifacts started out calmly enough. "This stuff is really offensive," my husband said, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the display of the Nazi flag, a cap with the SS symbol emblazoned on it, several helmets, and photographs of SS officers.
"Yeah, well, they're not reproductions. They're part of history. I've got German World War I pistols here, too," the surly fellow in a safari hat snapped.
"It's not the same. Why don't you sell it on the Internet or someplace where people who want to buy it can find it but you're not offending the rest of us," my husband responded, getting angrier by the second.
The dealer shoved a Soviet military belt buckle in front of our faces. "Stalin killed more people than Hitler," he sneered, "but I don't see you complaining about my selling this stuff."
His line of reasoning was clear: You object to a swastika on Main Street, you must be some kind of commie sympathizer.
Soon voices were rising, and curses and insults were flying. Then I realized my oldest son, who lives a few blocks down the street from the store, was by our side. Things don't get much more exciting in Purcellville, a town of some 3,500, than a public shouting match.
"It's his right to put out what he wants to," a little fellow piped in as he moved menacingly toward us, made braver by a golf club he had picked up from another display.
"He's got a First Amendment right to sell pornography on the street, too," my son rejoined, "but no decent person would do it in this town."
And that's the point. There's no question that the dealer had a First Amendment right to display the Nazi flag and sell his Third Reich war trophies in public. But having a legal right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do. And this distinction seems increasingly not to occur to those preoccupied with their legal right to behave in whatever appalling fashion they choose.
As symbols go, it doesn't get much worse than the swastika. The crooked cross symbolizes only one thing: hate. Moreover, hate in whose service some 6 million Jews and some 3 million others were systematically murdered.
What kind of person wants to own this stuff? It's one thing to have a collection of pistols or ammunition used by a common soldier in whatever war. It's quite another to want a collection of Third Reich memorabilia.
The owner of these artifacts kept asserting he was no admirer of Adolf Hitler's, claiming his uncle had been killed by "the krauts" in World War II, a phrase that hardly bolstered his case for racial sensitivity.
But there's no doubt that such displays attract neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and other bigots. And like "fighting words," these symbols can provoke a powerful response from their intended targets, too. At one point in the screaming match that ensued, I was sure it would come to blows.
I'm not sure what made the owner back down. Maybe he just decided we were bad for business, but he finally picked up the pennant and began rolling it up.
"If I take this down, will you just go away?" he said.
Gladly. He can always sell it on some Internet site, though both eBay and Yahoo banned the sale of Nazi artifacts last year. It's his right and mine to protest his doing it on Main Street in my town. That's the American way.

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