The “Hate Crimes” Bandwagon

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On January 14 of this year, the bodies of all four members of an Egyptian family were discovered dead in their New Jersey home. Until recent arrests in the case, it was widely believed that the murders were the work of Islamic militants.

For example, Daniel Pipes noted certain similarities to executions performed “in the ritualistic Islamist way (multiple knife attacks and near-beheading).” In addition, the head of the Coptic Christian family, Hossam Armanious, had been engaging Muslims in angry disputes about religion online. It was thus plausible that these disputes provoked the slayings. Because there were no signs of forced entry, some thought that the perpetrators might have been Muslim men known to the family who had pretended to convert to Christianity.

The killings were widely discussed by conservative pundits. Pipes, for example, raised the reasonable concern that law enforcement did not pay close enough attention to the possible religious motivation for the slayings. Michelle Malkin noted that crimes against certain groups, like Muslims, receive extra attention from media and law enforcement, but that crimes like these, committed against Christians, do not receive the same level of attention.

The crimes were not in fact religiously motivated. However, the discussion about the slayings raised a disturbing fact: some crimes are investigated and prosecuted more aggressively when they are committed against members of certain groups. This is America. Aren’t we all entitled to equal protection under the law? And if we are all free to profess whatever beliefs we want, why shouldn’t a crime against a Christian be prosecuted just as vigorously as a crime against a Muslim?

I wish it were true that the discussion about the Armanious murders resulted in a greater awareness of the need for all Americans to be treated equally under the law regardless of their beliefs. In fact, just the opposite happened. In order to appreciate exactly what happened and why, we must set aside the Armanious murders for a moment and consider an important legal concept in the context of a pair of murders committed over six years ago.

Two brutal slayings occurred less than a year apart and made the local news in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. In both, the victim was savagely beaten and left for dead. One of these murders made national headlines as a “hate crime” but the other remained obscure. In both cases, the perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison.

The murderers in the “hate crime” case were convicted of murder, spared the death penalty only because the victim’s mother asked for mercy, and will serve life with no possibility of parole. The killer in the other case was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 22 to 29 years in prison, and will occasionally come up for parole.

The “hate crime” case is, of course, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and it is frequently cited as an example of why we need more “hate crime” legislation. The other case was the murder of 15-year-old Daphne Sulk by her boyfriend after he learned of her pregnancy. These were both cold-blooded murders. Weren’t both crimes committed out of hate? If so, why was only the Shepard case considered a “hate crime”? And what is “hate crime” legislation anyway?

All but seven states have hate crime statutes on their books. According to the FBI web site, federal law defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society, which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”

Hate crime statutes typically impose harsher penalties for criminal offenses to which they apply. Although the “hate crime” may not always be prosecuted as such, it will often result in greater public pressure to mete out the harshest penalty possible for the criminal offense. Furthermore, in the wake of such cases, liberal activists will often push for stronger hate crime laws. This is supposed to remedy widespread bias against some group the victim belongs to, such as homosexuals, in Matthew Shepard’s case.

But do hate crime laws really serve the purpose for which they are intended? Or do they undermine the very concept of equal treatment under the law? And what does this have to do with the Armanious slayings? We have to go beyond the legalese and ask ourselves just what a “hate crime” really is.

In her book, The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, Tammy Bruce points out that through hate crime legislation, the left has managed to make the content of our minds illegal. Take this example.

“[L]et’s say that both of the victims are gay. The grocery-store clerk…kills his victim because he hates gay people. In the…carjacking, the guy wants the woman’s car, she’s in the way and represents everything he hates (he’s poor and disenfranchised, she is not), so he hates her and kills her. Whereas the grocery store clerk is still guilty of a hate crime, the carjacker is not, despite the fact that they both killed a gay woman. The actions were the same. The only difference is what the person was thinking when he committed the crime” (p. 46).

And this is why the murder of Matthew Shepard was considered a “hate crime” while, incredibly, that of Daphne Sulk was not. In the one case, the men hated homosexuals, a protected class of citizens. In the other case, Sulk’s boyfriend merely (in the eyes of “hate crime” advocates anyway) hated a pregnant heterosexual woman.

So rather than punish reprobates like these three men for the ultimate crime, murder, to the fullest extent of the law, we are to punish some criminals more harshly than others for harboring “politically incorrect” notions? With the left legislating ideology, you might be thinking that the Republicans came to power in the nick of time.

Think again. I first learned of the Armanious slayings through the blog of the socially conservative journalist, Michelle Malkin. As the story unfolded, Malkin would make no less than five entries about the slayings with the term “hate crime” as part of the title.

When I first saw the term being used by a conservative, I chalked it up to righteous indignation and the fact that the term was being bandied about by law enforcement and the media. Indeed, Malkin herself wrote disparagingly of the notion of “hate crimes” at one point: She upbraided the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who had not yet condemned the slayings for being “always quick to jump on the hate-crimes bandwagon when it fits their agenda.” So is the idea of “hate crime” OK when it fits the agenda of the religious right?

Some conservative pundits, like David Horowitz, the brothers Limbaugh, and Armstrong Williams, have voiced opposition to hate crime legislation. But what of those who, like Malkin, want to make anti-Christian bias punishable as a hate crime? And how serious are the conservatives as a whole about repealing these odious laws? Where does equal treatment under the law stand on the list of Republican priorities? Taking the drives to ban abortion and “defend” marriage as examples, we can surmise that repealing hate crime laws is a very distant third at best: I have heard of no credible move afoot to do so.

Worse still, the two major branches of the conservative movement offer less than nothing to the opponent of hate crime law. Not surprisingly, some Christian conservatives have chosen special treatment over the principle of equality under the law: they are actively seeking protection under these very same “hate crime” laws!

For example, after some crosses in an anti-abortion exhibit were vandalized in Louisiana, the man in charge of the property had this to say: “Defacing a religious symbol is a hate crime.” He added that since similar acts against Jews and other religious minorities would not be tolerated, they should not be tolerated against Christians.

This is not an isolated case. Pat Buchanan, who opposes hate crime laws for homosexuals, called Trent Lott a “victim of a hate crime” after he fell from grace due to some ill-considered remarks about Strom Thurmond. A conservative website hosts a petition that calls for “U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to investigate the hate-crime case of a Coptic Christian family in Jersey City, N.J.” This alone might be fine, if poorly put, but in case you were wondering what they meant: “Sign this petition urging Gonzalez to look close [sic] at what defines hate crimes and include Christians as victims.”

So the take-home message in the Armanious murders has not been that all Americans should be protected equally under the law. Instead, it has been that Christians should receive special treatment as a class protected by “hate crime” laws! But social conservatives try to enforce their ideas by government edict all the time. Who favors government “decency” standards on our airwaves? Who works to ban the teaching of evolution in our schools? Who wants prayer back in publicly-funded schools? Why would the religious right fail to recognize the golden opportunity afforded them by hate crime legislation? So the social conservatives see this as a chance to make “bias against Christianity” (whatever that might comprise) illegal.

Is the secular wing of the Republican party any better? No. Here are just two examples of the appeasement and indifference in this camp. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, recently came under fire from social conservatives for signing a bill that added transexuality and transvestitism to the list of protected classes under California’s hate crime law. Is he too much of a “girlie man” to make a stand for individual rights? Senator John McCain did little better when he responded to calls for federalizing all hate crimes. His bold stand: “Federalizing all such crimes will simply obstruct justice by forcing them into clogged federal courts.”

The proper response to hate crime legislation is simple. First, abolish it. Second, throw the book at criminals for their actual crimes rather than for what they think. Our government exists to protect us from the initiation of force on the part of others (i.e., from fraud, theft, and murder). But holding a belief, however repugnant, does not, as Thomas Jefferson might put it, “pick someone’s pocket or break his leg.” The only valid reason to consider someone’s beliefs in a criminal case is to establish intent. This is already part of criminal law. The crime should be punished the same regardless of the belief system of its perpetrator.

Punishing someone for his beliefs in addition to his actual crime is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what the government should be doing. For example, if someone gets ten years for a crime and has two more added on because he is “guilty” of a “hate crime,” he’s being jailed two years for his ideas by the government.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in our Constitution because government regulation of speech would prevent the open exchange of ideas. But if we criminalize ideas themselves, the guarantee of freedom of speech becomes meaningless. The American Revolution was fought not primarily with the sword, but with the pen. The writings of such men as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were instrumental in providing the theoretical framework for our form of government as well as convincing others to fight off tyranny. Our life, liberty, and happiness were won through, and depend upon, a free, open exchange of ideas.

Don’t be suckered by the shouts of “hate crime” to compound brutality with tyranny: These are the shouts of a mob who want your head.

Gus Van Horn is a research scientist from Houston, Texas. He maintains a web log about political issues at gusvanhorn.blogspot.com.

Gus Van Horn is the winner of the monthly blog contest for April 2005.

Posted by on April 8, 2005. Filed under Culture, Spring 2005. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry