Spray-painted swastikas and racially motivated beatings pepper the news these days, reminding everyone that moral lunatics exist.

Police statistics from around the area show an upsurge in this violence and vandalism, or at least in the reporting of it. It's hard to know which, and it's hard to know how to react. Paying too much attention to isolated incidents plays into the hands of these publicity-seeking hate-mongers. At the same time, ignoring them can amount to tolerating them and thus allowing the virus to spread. It's a dilemma for everyone, especially public officials.

Montgomery County residents and officials have worked out a good response. It includes neighborhood support for victims, additions to the public school curriculum, a special police unit and a low- key but solid series of statements to community groups and the public by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and Police Chief Bernard D. Crooke, among others. Groups in the District seem divided over whether the right response to the threat of organized hate groups is a counter-demonstration or a collection of community activities stressing brotherly love and cohesion. Whatever their choice, the overriding impression one must have is that the communities in this region have a basic capacity for goodness far more powerful than the pathologies that are competing for attention.

Police say the incidents are not part of an organized conspiracy, and that younger people are primarily responsible. Neither conclusion is especially reassuring. It would be nice to be able to assert that an isolated group of a few dozen people -- "conspirators" -- was responsible for all the misdeeds. And the involvement of younger people is also disturbing. Such behavior must not be allowed to become a common form of juvenile high jinks; swastikas are not just a kind of obscene graffiti, and racial epithets are not harmless forms of teasing.

Strains in the economy have been cited as a cause, but we remain skeptical of that. Parents and schools are largely to blame for raising children who are either hateful in fact, or oblivious of the import of these acts. History instructs well, but only if it is taught.