I discovered one day that an acquaintance of mine was a hidden hater. He didn't just come out of the closet. He smashed his way out.
We were talking about the last Seinfeld show when suddenly the guy began leading the conversation toward Jewish comics in general and then Jewish politicians, merchants and media executives.
His monologue soon became an anti-Semitic tirade and his already distorted logic of Zionist conquest a flow of invective. And he became a metaphor for the secret haters who revealed themselves to me in 1998.
The man didn't exactly rise and sing the "Horst Wessel Song" and he didn't say the Holocaust was justified, he just simmered in the heat of private loathing that I had never realized existed.
It was, up until then, a silent animosity. Why he chose that moment to bare those dark, innermost feelings is a mystery. I had known him for years, and he'd never indicated that elements of cultural poison were in his system.
He's no skinhead. You won't find him burning crosses or spray-painting swastikas on the side of anyone's house. He's a CPA and as gentle as a lamb, a person who lives a quiet life.
That's just the problem.
Like the Germans who were equally lamb-like until Hitler came along, he will be one of those who, privately thinking like the mobs, will join them.
As a way of looking back on 1998, I discussed hidden hatreds with Rabbi Marvin Hier as he led me through the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. Hier is founder and dean of the center, an intense and articulate man whose view of history's hatreds is all-encompassing.
What gnawed at me through the year were not just recurring incidents of hate crimes in L.A. but the responses to them I so often read or heard in anonymous messages and phone calls. They were the whispers of the lambs.
Hier knows about them. "The new danger to society," he said during our tour of the museum, "are those who think as the bigots think and will join the bigots if there is an economic crash. They are the closet bigots."
He sees them as small and fearful people who, at a moment of despair, will find others to blame for their anguish, and the others, be they Jews or immigrants, are always the ones different from themselves.
As I walked with Hier, the thought occurred to me that I would not have named it the Museum of Tolerance. A high school teacher pointed out once that tolerance implies a grudging, almost reluctant, acceptance. The blacks are out there, so (sigh) we'll have to tolerate them. Or the Latinos or the Asians or the gays or God knows who else.
I would have called it the Museum of Humanity because it embraces heroes as well as villains, acknowledging those who, through the ages, placed the lives of others over their own and left the vivid air inscribed with their honor.
But it is the museum's images of genocide that burn on the brain.
History prints epochs of monumental horror in bright red letters. While we may forget the lessons they teach, we don't forget the incidents. What we are inclined to overlook, however, are the embers of odium that burn in our own cultures, small flecks of heat waiting to burst into flame.
I chose hidden hatred as a last column for '98 not because L.A. is a caldron of animosity. Although we continue to lead the nation in the number of hate crimes, they edge slowly downward.
We are, contrarily, a culture that is beginning to celebrate rather than scorn its diversity, a community of communities where the people next door rush to assist when racist thugs invade.
We see images of outrage on the faces of neighbors as much as despair on the faces of victims. But we also sense the silence of those who say nothing . . . and wonder what their quiescence portends.
"We are poor readers of history," Rabbi Hier said as we moved through exhibits that predated the Jewish Holocaust and heard the recorded voices of hidden haters. "The reason for the museum is a reminder of what could happen."
Who could have predicted, he asked, that a society of Bach could become a society of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen? "New ethnic groups could be in danger," he said. "We cannot say the Holocaust couldn't happen again."
We watch the organized hate groups carefully, the Klan and the neo-Nazis and the splinter groups that have emerged from them. But there is no way to tap into the malevolence of those who, like the man I knew, bear their hatreds silently, waiting for the armies of enmity to once more march the streets.
I heard from many of them in 1998 and I fear those silent lambs the most.
Al Martinez's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org