Baltimore's 'Fiddler on the Roof' 'Heil' incident shows where we are as a country

Eighteen years ago, during Martin O’Malley’s first year as mayor of Baltimore, the man he had just named housing commissioner, Paul Graziano, got drunk, loud and homophobic in a Fells Point restaurant. He used a slur and made sexually graphic comments to men he apparently thought were gay. Police handcuffed Graziano and charged him with disorderly conduct and failure to obey their lawful order.

Hours later, the charges were dropped, in keeping with the practice of the day; police and prosecutors considered the problem abated by Graziano’s arrest.

That afternoon, at a press conference, Graziano apologized profusely for his behavior. With the now-sober housing commissioner slouched beside him in a chair, O’Malley stood up for him, saying he was a good man who had made a bad mistake. Graziano went on to serve the city for 16 years, until Mayor Catherine Pugh accepted his resignation at the start of her term, two years ago.

What they're saying about the anti-Semitic outburst at 'Fiddler on the Roof' in Baltimore »

Given what happened at the Hippodrome Theatre on Wednesday night, it’s worth noting what O’Malley said during that December 2000 press conference: He said he would have fired the housing commissioner had he made the remarks while sober.

And there it is — alcohol as mitigation, the thing that, for the most part, makes us hesitate when judging men and women who run afoul of the law or the standards of decency. Drunkenness is offered, and more often than not accepted, as an excuse for all kinds of behavior because it impairs judgment, diminishes impulse control and stokes emotions.

But after Baltimore police released their report on Anthony M. Derlunas’ drunken behavior at the Hippodrome, the judgment in the social media I monitored Thursday and Friday was direct and harsh: Almost no one believed the story given to officers who responded to the theater.

And that story went like this: When Derlunas raised his hand in the Nazi salute and said, “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump,” during intermission of a performance of “Fiddler On The Roof,” he meant it as a criticism of — not a sign of solidarity with — President Donald Trump. Derlunas had just watched the closing scene of Act 1, which portrays Russians, led by the local constable, riding into the shtetl of Anatevka and ruining Tevye’s daughter’s wedding, an anti-Jewish demonstration, part of the pogroms that led to the mass migrations of Jewish families in the early 20th century. This scene supposedly “reminded [Derlunas] of his hatred of Donald Trump,” the police report says. The officer who interviewed Derlunas concluded that “his intention was to express his dislike of President Donald Trump.”

In an interview with Sun reporter Sarah Meehan on Friday, Derlunas stuck by his story, and he apologized for his drunken and disturbing outburst.

Early on, almost no one seemed to buy this.

And that’s owing to another aspect of drunkenness that people commonly accept: That, because booze washes away inhibitions, the things people utter while intoxicated reveal something — a prejudice, for instance — that they would otherwise keep to themselves.

There’s truth to that. But most people want to see some kind of pattern before reaching conclusions; we tend to be forgiving of first-time offenders. "I've never used this kind of language before,” Paul Graziano said in his moment of contrition. “I regret beyond belief this incident."

Derlunas’ words were more fraught. They would have been offensive at any time. But, coming less than a month after the anti-Semitic massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, they approached yelling fire in a theater. Some people expected to next hear gunfire. “It gave me a sense of vulnerability that our children in school have now,” says Sherry Brown, who was in the Hippodrome and says she heard and saw Derlunas. “It also brought to me that you need to look for exits any time you’re in any place and play in your mind how would I get out, how would I protect myself. ... It’s a sad, sad thing.”

Indeed, that is a sad fact of life in this gun-infested country: Americans are advised to constantly be aware of their surroundings in public spaces, and to know where the exits are.

Here’s another fact of American life: Hate crimes, based in race or ethnicity, have been on the rise across the country for three years running, according to the FBI. There were 7,175 reported last year.

And here’s one more fact of life today: Many Americans fear, and believe, that their president comforts bigots, and even incites violence. That’s why, when Derlunas uttered Trump’s name, people assumed he was a follower. In an Associated Press poll in March, nearly 60 percent of adults said they believe Trump is a racist. More than half said his policies had made life worse for Muslims and Hispanics; almost as many agreed that Trump had worsened the lives of African-Americans.

So it’s not for nothing that people reacted as they did. It’s where we are today.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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