BROOKSVILLE – Hernando County suffered few hate crimes in the last several years, but it doesn’t mean that hate isn’t a problem, said panelists who participated in a televised forum Wednesday night.

“We don’t want to wait until we have a hate crime,” said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We want to be proactive.”

This is the second hate crimes forum held in Hernando County in the last several months, prompted in part by anti-Muslim comments made recently by local political leaders and others.

Hate speech fuels discrimination and can lead to violence, vandalism and threats, Bedier said. The forums help counter that hate, fostering dialogue and discouraging violence.

“We feel that the best avenue for prevention is education,” agreed Capt. Michael Maurer of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.

So far, there hasn’t been a hate crime in the county this year, Maurer said. There was one last year, two in 2005, and 5 in 2004.

Nationally, there’s a hate crime nearly every hour, said Bedier. Every week, a cross is burned. That’s why hate speech is so dangerous, he said.

“It’s a constitutional right to hate others,” Bedier said. “But it’s not something to be celebrated.”

About 20 people attended the forum at the Hernando County Government Center, including County Commissioner Rose Rocco. The event was co-sponsored by CAIR and Hernando County’s Government Broadcast Channel 19.

The forum aired live, and will be rebroadcast next week, Rocco said.

Bedier was joined by Maurer, FBI agent Carl Whitehead, and agent Lance Newman from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The panel was mediated by Nick Morana. The panelists encouraged victims of hate crimes and bias incidents to come forward.


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