While enjoying a vanilla malt at the local Dairy Queen yesterday, I couldn’t help but overhear a heated quarrel between two college age young women about hate crime laws in America. The argument made me wonder if anti-bias laws are in the cross-hairs of mass-media political pundits once again. I thought the matter was settled.
Evidently there are still some people who claim that hate crime laws aren’t needed or are redundant because they believe that there is no such thing as a hate crime. The reasoning goes something like this: Violent crime is all pretty much the same, there should be equality under the law regarding severe crime. Murder is murder, right?
Those who put forth this argument hope we’ll forget that murder statutes have long been nuanced. Motives matter in the commission of violent crime. Even non-experts like me understand that premeditated murder should be treated more harshly than a death that happens accidentally or unintentionally.
Homicide is a complicated, serious legal situation. There are the long-standing general categories: murder, manslaughter, and justifiable homicide. Murder is already further categorized into First-Degree Murder and Second-Degree Murder. Manslaughter is generally reserved for those cases where the accused did not plan for the victim to die due to his or her actions or by accident. Justifiable homicide is a classification that is used when a person kills another in self-defense or similar circumstance.
Definitions of assault and battery are even more nuanced than those of murder. There are many types of assault and legally defined motivations for assault.
Taken together, there are different penalties for the various types of homicide and assault dependent upon intent. Hence there are also laws on the books that aim to deter and punish anti-social violence motivated by bias.
There is the random crime of somebody being attacked in the act of stealing a purse or wallet. Then there is the random crime of being attacked because the assailant doesn’t like your skin color, your gender, or perceived religion. The assailent wants to beat you up or kill you not because they want your valuables but because they don’t like the group they think you belong to.
The young woman who argued against the need for hate crime laws claimed that such laws are actually “thought crimes”. She claimed that hate crime laws make it illegal to dislike blacks, muslims, immigrants and so forth. Her tablemate countered by saying that it is impossible to prohibit or prevent what people think. However, it is reasonable to prohibit and prevent criminal behavior based upon anti-social thoughts.
The young lady provided a scenario. Perhaps a “Jane Doe” believes that she should have her neighbor’s red Corvette. There is no law that says she cannot believe such a thing. On the other hand, if “Jane Doe” acts on her belief and steals the neighbor’s car, she should be prosecuted for stealing.
Similarly, perhaps a “John Doe” thinks that people of a certain nationality should be harmed because of who they are, there is no way to prohibit such thinking. But if “John Doe” beats up or shoots somebody he thinks is a member of that nationality, then he should be prosecuted for committing a crime based upon that motivation.
The anti-hate law woman would have nothing of this argument. She said that she opposes hate crime laws because they threaten freedom of speech and religious freedom. The young woman said that she has a constitutional right to hate anybody for any reason she wants 24/7, 365 days of the year. She just shouldn’t act on that hate.
The other young woman said that hate crime laws are a matter of fact and have been found to be constitutional. The remaining question is just who is to be protected under such laws. I later did some fact-checking and found out that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states may indeed impose harsher sentences on criminals who choose their victims on the basis of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that state legislatures could “appropriately pass sentencing laws to reflect a judgment that crimes motivated by bias are more harmful than other crimes, both to victims and to society at large.”
The hate crime laws generally define bias crimes as those that are committed against a person or property due to “race religion, color, disability, sex, and nationality.” Not all of the state laws include disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The way I see it, the groups most in need of bias crime protections are the ones who are deliberately excluded from those protections. The young lady who favored hate crime laws said basically the same thing to her tablemate.
The two young women continued their debate as they discarded their packaging and drink cups then walked out of the restaurant. I wonder if they came to a consensus or if they agreed to disagree about this topic.
Their argument made me wonder about the level of prejudice and hate crimes in the US lately. It seems like we are at a fever pitch and that the rate of hate crimes is increasing.
When I was an idealistic youth, I imagined that bigotry and homophobia would no longer exist in the 21st century. My wishes didn’t come true. We still have the need for strong hate crime laws.