Our nation finds itself facing war, terrorism, a historic economic collapse and a potentially pandemic disease. Things have been better.

Our nation finds itself facing war, terrorism, a historic economic collapse and a potentially pandemic disease. Things have been better.


Those in search of a silver lining continually remind us that within every crisis lies opportunity. While this may be true, we must also remember that where there is opportunity, there are also opportunists.


Rather than provide leadership in a time of crisis, some will seek to exploit difficult situations to pursue their own agenda. It’s easier to do than you might think.


Fear is a natural reaction to uncertainty. We’re afraid of losing our jobs, our houses, our way of life. When that fear is compounded by communal suffering, a mob mentality can turn well-reasoned, rational individuals into a panicked herd. That’s when we’re most vulnerable to manipulation.


We grow tired of thinking about our problems, so many of us simply stop thinking all together. Many find solidarity in their misery and focus their anger at a common enemy. Why look in the mirror when it’s so much easier to point a finger?


Unsurprisingly, the powerful and the wealthy are not subjected to our wrath. We prefer easier targets: the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised.


While there are always undertones of irrational hatred espoused by some in our society, it’s when we face serious challenges that people who ordinarily ignore such drivel start to listen.


According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the United States increased 4 percent in just the last year. Since 2000, that number has jumped by 54 percent.


Three major European human rights organizations have already issued a warning that the economic crisis is fueling racist and xenophobic intolerance. Europeans know all too well the cost of ignoring such problems until it’s too late.


It was the oppressive poverty of post-World War I Germany that set the table for the rise of Adolph Hitler in the 1920s. Germany faced punitive war reparations and hyper-inflation destroyed its economy. In the peak of their despair, the German people heard a comforting voice: it’s not your fault, it’s theirs.


The recent outbreak of swine flu, or the A/H1N1 virus, shows how quickly simmering undercurrents of hatred can be brought to a boil when a handy excuse is produced.


Within hours of news reports indicating a virulent strain of flu was killing people in Mexico, the attacks began. Jay Severin, a Boston-based radio talk show host, used the swine flu as an excuse to describe Mexicans as “primitives” and “leeches” and stated that Mexico’s leading exports were the swine flu and “venereal disease.”


A virus doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from, and it doesn’t pay attention to national borders. If Severin was actually concerned about our national health, he’d be telling us to wash our hands instead.


China’s first case of swine flu was reportedly brought into the country by a student returning home from St. Louis. I suppose the Chinese Jay Severin is blaming the filthy Americans for their situation.


When the bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, panicked populations also blamed the usual suspects: Jews, foreigners and the poor.


Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning community drinking wells — even though they were dying along with everyone else. Entire communities were wiped out and thousands of Jews were murdered by hysterical mobs. Many were burned alive.


Thankfully, most of what we’ve seen and heard today has amounted to little more than frustrated bluster: the economic crisis was caused by lending to Latinos; Mexicans carry disease; Jews were behind the Sept. 11 attacks; Christians are infidels; all Muslims are terrorists.


But what if we start acting on those words? While the economy is bad, it could potentially get much, much worse. The swine flu has yet to prove itself a serious health risk, but as the virus replicates, it could mutate into a nightmare. Terrorism is always a threat.


As the seeds of hatred are sown, we must remain diligent and strong in the face of the hysteria that will inevitably follow a serious crisis. We simply cannot allow the alternative.


— Read more from Matthew Casey at matthewcasey.net.