Children are taught early on to ignore spiteful taunting.

Even the nation’s most venerable document, the Constitution, makes it clear how important the freedom of speech is to the open exchange of sometimes-conflicting ideas and values.

Alone, they are just words — manifestations of ideologies that no matter how offensive or repugnant to another’s personal beliefs they might be should not be stifled.

What happens, though, when those hurtful words take on the power of actions? When do phrases and sentences cross that thin and fragile line from being simply offensive to threatening?

That’s a distinction becoming increasingly important to address in a nation fractured by rhetoric. There is a dangerous blurring of the space between discourse and hate.

Nothing — nothing — should give someone justification for threatening or harming people because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or where they were born.

When society starts numbing itself to the abhorrence of a person for these or any other traits, it clears a path for atrocity.

Last year, reports of such hate crimes — which had been on the decline — rose more than 23 percent, according to the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

FBI statistics released in January said there were 5,850 incidents of hate crimes nationally in 2015, up 6.8 percent from 5,479 in 2014. In December alone, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports there were more than 1,000 hate incidents across the nation.

These are not matters of people simply being offended. There have been reports of Muslim women having their headscarves yanked off while walking down the street, swastikas being spray-painted on the sides of Jewish temples, bomb threats targeting gay organizations.

Hate festers and breeds through actions of anger and cowardice.

If we turn our backs and dismiss even the mildest of such acts, we have allowed it to thrive.

Hate festers anger

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