Another popular thread got me thinking again about hate crimes and the laws that surround them. I’ve been interested in the issue since ninth grade, when my major religion class projects focused on the case of Matthew Shepherd and pushing for hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation.
Major disclaimer: I no longer have absolutely any idea what the actual status of hate crime laws is in any state, including the one where I currently reside. I have a long-term goal of organizing information like this along with other queer legal resources on a single website, but thanks to things like grad school I’ve yet to take that project out of the conceptual phase.
That said, I think I finally put my finger on why hate crimes legislation makes sense, at least in my mind.
First of all, let me make a distinction, because this seems to come up every time there’s a discussion of hate crimes. This is not about penalizing interracial crime, adding penalties to a crime merely because the victim is a minority, or otherwise giving undue legal protections to minority groups. A fair number of folks who oppose hate crimes legislation always seem to chime in with wack examples of crimes with run of the mill criminal motivations–greed, revenge, pathology–whose victims happen to be minorities. “Just because a white guy kills a black guy, that doesn’t mean it’s a hate crime,” these folks cry.
Well, no, it doesn’t. But we’re not talking about a criminal whose thought process is “Man, I really feel like killin’ somebody today. I am totally just gonna kill the first person I see. Oh, sweet. I’ll go kill that black guy.” Hate crime laws aren’t about criminals who have already decided to commit a crime for any of the myriad reasons a person might choose to do so. Hate crime laws are about the criminal who thinks, “Man, I hate black people. I hate black people so much, I am gonna go kill me one.” A hate crime is one that is motivated by hatred or prejudice against a group, where the crime is an expression of that hatred or prejudice. Of course, things can get tricky when the crime also has other motivations–a burglar steals things for money, say, but he targets Jewish victims because he believes they deserve it.
Now that we’re past that bare bones (and, again, not the verbatim legal definition, since I’m out of touch with the current laws; this is about the heart of the issue rather than individual pieces of legislation) definition, onto an argument I find really interesting: isn’t this thought police? Aren’t we punishing criminals more for the way they think and feel? And, by extension, because the way we think and feel is right, and they’re wrong?
Simply answered: yes, yes, and yes.
Hate crime laws absolutely punish criminals more for their opinions. We’re not as sophisticated as the denizens of Orwell’s 1984 society, but we’re playing thought police as well as we know how.
And we should, because some ways of thinking and acting are simply wrong.
I’m a huge fan of free speech. It’s a wonderful liberty I cherish and promote. But the notion that certain groups are inferior to others and thus deserving of abuse and violence is simply wrong.
Sure, some of my reason for saying this comes from my recently revealed belief in the big JC. My personal background in Christianity (as liberal and non-denominational as it is) tells me to love my neighbor as myself, turn the other cheek, and understand that all humans were created equally in the image of our creator. But aside from the particular identity (or existence) of the creator, I’m pretty sure a whole lot of non-Christians, religious and atheist alike, would agree with those concepts.
Religion aside, a belief in basic human worth leads me to believe we are all, at our core, equal. We all have absolutely equal capacity for love, kindness, courage, and forgiveness. Sure, there are a lot of variables that may prevent many of us from fortune, fame, and long life, but this does not diminish the capacity of the human spirit or the human mind. Poverty does not erase love. Skin color cannot prevent kindness. Illness will not preclude courage. Even enslavement cannot forbid forgiveness.
It’s time we stop letting our loyalty to free speech override common human decency. We must no longer tolerate those who believe that others are inferior and worthy of abuse. They may think their thoughts, speak their opinions, and write their hatred into as many books as they please. But the moment those words turn to action, to violence and to crime, that is the moment we as a society must say enough.