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Saturday, July 06, 2002
Hate Crimes Revisited

It seems we have a new candidate for a hate crime perpetrator: the LAX shooter.

Quite frankly, I think designating something a "hate crime" is a waste of otherwise useful cognitive activity.

I really wonder whether hate crimes laws actually afford any protection to the group or groups they are intended to protect. I have no data to back that up, but I would like to see some research into whether this type of law is anything other than a “feel good” response to a perceived problem. How often did the types of acts described in hate crime legislation happen before and after the passage of that legislation?

While the problem may be real (Group A disagrees with Group B’s lifestyle or religion), I doubt that our government can do much about it. Other than punishing someone when they commit a crime, doing something about the problem would involve changing either the beliefs of Group A or the lifestyle or religion of Group B. I don’t think I want our government to go into either of those areas.

As to punishing criminals, we already do that, at least in theory. Is a crime really worse (and merit more or different punishment) because the criminal holds his victim in contempt because of his beliefs, lifestyle or skin color? If I had to guess, I would say that most or all criminals hold their victims in contempt, even if the basis for that contempt is something other than religion, race or lifestyle. If the criminal’s contempt is based on the fact that his victim is weak or law abiding or young or nerdy, or some other factor not deemed improper under hate crimes legislation, I question whether his crime is any less deserving of punishment than the criminal who selects his victim based on the victim’s religious beliefs, race or lifestyle. For example, I don’t believe that the murderer of 8 year old Meghan Kanka (the “Meghan’s Law” Meghan) is one bit less deserving of punishment than the murderers of Matthew Shepard (gay bashing murder in Wisconsin) or James Byrd (racial murder in Texas).

Probably the strongest argument that opponents of hate crimes legislation have is that what is being punished by hate crime laws is the beliefs of the perpetrator. Hate crime legislation does not purport to create new crimes. What it does is punish crimes motivated by certain factors more than the same crimes without that motivation. This has been rather poorly expressed by the opponents hate crime legislation by saying that what is being punished is “thought”. In point of fact, “thought” (or at least "intent") is punished all the time. Intentionally murdering a person has always been punished more severely than recklessly causing someone’s death. What I always thought that the law was supposed to punish was intent, not motivation. Under these circumstances, motivation and belief are synonymous, and hate crime laws change the focus from intent to belief. That change is not necessarily a good thing at all. I don’t think that the government should have the ability to tell anyone, even criminals, that any beliefs are good or bad.

It is (or at least was) a liberal thing to not make judgments about the beliefs or lifestyles of others. That is actually something I agree with (as long as I am accorded the same courtesy and the belief/lifestyle does not adversely affect me or my family). Now it seems to be the liberal position that individuals should not be permitted to make judgments about such things, but the government can.

Hate crime legislative proponents argue that it is the actor’s motive, not his belief that is being considered in exacting punishment, and that motive is already considered in sentencing. If they are is correct on both points, why do we need new laws to do the very thing that we are now doing? If they are not correct on one or the other of those points, query: how is ascertaining murderer X’s gay bashing motive any different from ascertaining his belief that a gay man is an affront to God? Surely the murderer of a gay man who is found to believe that gay men are an affront to God will be held to have been motivated by that belief unless he can clearly establish some other motivation. That puts the burden in the wrong place. The state, within limits, should have to justify its sentence.
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