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LAW-ENFORCEMENT authorities in Niagara County have conducted a necessarily purposeful investigation into a series of ugly incidents that victimized members of a predominantly black congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The probe focuses on burglaries and a suspicious fire at the church, Kingdom Hall, last Aug. 20 that caused an estimated $250,000 damage.

But the incidents also include other damage inflicted on the former school building in the Belden Center section of the Town of Niagara, racial slurs spray-painted on the building, disruption of a worship service and vandalism of cars in the church parking lot.

"There has been a lot of discrimination and harassment going on there for quite some some," says Sheriff Deputy Peter Clark.

Now two young men have been indicted on charges in connection with the fire, believed to be an arson. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

Their guilt or innocence can be determined through the proper legal proceedings. But District Attorney Peter L. Broderick reflects the right attitude, serious and determined, in emphasizing that bias-related crimes are "just not going to happen in Niagara County without being dealt with in as strong a fashion as possible." One of the suspects has been charged, he said, under a section of law that requires stiffer penalties for these crimes.

Whoever is responsible, these are really hate crimes, and such crimes warrant especially painstaking investigation and prosecution.

All crime is bad, but hate crimes are particularly dangerous. They have impact on more than a single victim.

They reflect a hatred that encompasses not an individual but an entire group of people. Thus, they threaten and even endanger all members of the resented group, whether it is racial, religious or something else. That, in turn, threatens the whole community.

Dennis Brown, presiding overseer for the congregation, said he suspected that the people responsible might have been motivated by a bias against the religion of the congregation as much as a bias against the members' race.

Either way, this harassment and intimidation must be stopped. Behind these actions is an attempt to try to deprive some Americans of basic rights that all Americans must be equally free to exercise and enjoy.

Culprits in such crimes have to be found, convicted and punished -- both for the basic reason that they violated the law and also as a clear example to deter others who might be tempted by the same destructive prejudices.

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