You need only to be in Ohio all of five minutes to spot one of the human-shaped "O-H-I-O" stickers which adorn the rear windshields of Ohio State University football fan vehicles.
Recently, Cleveland Browns fans were ecstatic after a member of the Cincinnati Bengals made fun of the team's "Brownie" elf mascot, and the Bengals — as Cleveland sportswriter Mary Kay Cabot put it — got "elfed up" 24-3.
Whether it's a football, a sticker or a flag, symbols mean something to us. Earlier this month, images from the Sept. 11 terror attacks stirred to painful remembrance the kind of murderous hatred that can be wrought by fanaticism. The Twin Towers remain symbols of our resilience; of how unified we were in the days and weeks in response to an unspeakable act of violence inflicted on innocent people.
Yet 22 years later, we find ourselves so deeply divided, we couldn't even afford a single day of grace and grief for those who were lost without a bitter debate over woulda, coulda, shoulda.
We have devolved to the place where some see nothing wrong with employing symbols that denigrate the very essence of what it means to be an American just to win an argument.
In the days shortly before Sept. 11, Anne Zakkour, a school board member in Tipp City near Dayton flashed a Nazi salute and uttered "Sieg Heil" during a meeting because she disagreed with board President Simon Patry over plans about a new school.
It's a mystery — and a disgrace — why people keep referencing one of the most shameful symbols in human history.
Instead of being relegated to the likes of Judas, Adolf Hitler somehow has been recast as someone to emulate.
A neo-Nazi school in Ohio: Neo-Nazi school made possible by weak policy
A Nazi salute and all that it symbolizes ignores and denigrates the memories of nearly 420,000 Americans who died in defense of this country against the scourge of Nazism, including 23,000 Ohioans.
We keep telling ourselves "we're better than this" but the evidence suggests otherwise. We seem to have lost the maturity and capacity to disagree without labeling one another as traitors, fascists, communists or less-than-human; behavior that comes right out of the Nazi playbook.
So, how did we get to the place where a Nazi salute in Tipp City was thought by someone to be an acceptable response during a debate over school policy?
Zakkour not only refused to apologize, but doubled down on why she did it.
Such behavior is a symptom of a growing problem of what happens when we blow through the guardrails of basic decency and mutual respect.
No one is touting that we adhere to the Marquess of Queensbury rules — after all, we're a country that thrives on our differences — but we find ourselves tumbling into a rabbit hole of paranoia, "anger-tainment" and an unbridled cruelty that's laying waste to our claims of being a people of faith, equality and fairness.
We're in the process of becoming balkanized because of hyper-individualism, which deems personal identity more important that the greater good. We're like a jigsaw puzzle, made of a million pieces but with no interest of coming together to create a comprehensive picture. Though our credo is "E Pluribus unum," we're ignoring the "unum" part of it, putting us at risk of the biblical warning that "A house divided cannot stand."
If there is any comfort to be had, it is that the Tipp City incident made news precisely because there are enough Ohioans who were sufficiently shocked by such behavior. According to media reports, Tipp City residents lit up the school board offices with phone calls and emails demanding Zakkour's resignation.
But she didn't resign — Patry did.
In recent years, we've heard more than once that democracy itself is at risk. Polls are telling us that we're at a place where many Americans fully expect violence to accompany the next national election.
The irony is that the freedom of expression, the bedrock of the democracy which we hold so dear, is being perverted by the kind of extremism that leads to an embrace of a symbol and a man who tried to destroy it.
Charita M. Goshay is a Canton Repository staff writer and member of the editorial board. Reach her at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @cgoshayREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Nazi salute by at school meeting is a symbol of a democracy in danger