The Trayvon Martin killing has been characterized by many as a “hate crime.” Hate crimes are said to be those in which a criminal’s actions are motivated by factors such as racial, religious, or gender prejudices. If convicted of a hate crime, Trayvon Martin’s alleged killer George Zimmerman would face a harsher sentence for his supposed racially prejudiced crime.
Of course we should all be opposed to racial prejudice, especially to crimes committed on the basis of such prejudice. But are such crimes worse than wrongdoings committed from some other malicious motive? Almost all crimes are motivated by disregard for the rights of others, so is there anything to justify punishing certain crimes as “hateful?”
Some people are racially prejudiced based upon certain ideas they hold toward members of a particular group. Hate crime laws, therefore, are in effect levied against ideas that the government deems undesirable. But should the state be involved in promoting or punishing certain ideological views?
The government exists to protect individual rights by outlawing the use of force against others. In cases where force is used, the justice system exists to punish and deter crimes. Only the use of physical force by one person against another should be punished as a crime. For instance, assault is punishable because it involves one person physically harming another. And by punishing people who commit assault, the court deters future assaults.
Merely thinking prejudiced thoughts about someone before harming him does not increase the degree of force itself. For example, three people could all believe that homosexuality is a sin. The first keeps the idea to himself. The second calls every gay man he finds a derogatory name. But the third person assaults a gay man. Each of these three has the same idea, but each acts on it differently, and only one physically harms another person. Ideas do not pose a threat to society; what threatens society is how people choose to act on their ideas.
It is worth noting that racist, sexist, or other prejudicial motives can be used to prove a suspect’s guilt in a criminal investigation. For example, in 2009, Allen Andrade was the first to be convicted of a hate crime against a transgendered person. The court ruled that the murderer targeted his victim because she was transgendered, which also elevated the murder to “hate crime” status. While it is correct for the court to cite Andrade’s anti-transgender beliefs to prove that he had a motive to commit the crime, he should not be punished more heavily for having these motivations. In doing so, the court punishes the idea, not the use of force.
Laws against “hate crimes” also undermine objective law. Neither the enactment nor the enforcement of laws should be based on politicians’ politically-correct whims about what is socially undesirable. For example, if an extreme sect of Christianity took over Congress and enacted harsher than usual punishments for crimes committed against a preacher, the rule of law would be undermined. As Aristotle said, we should be governed by the rule of law, not the whims of men.
By describing in plain language which crimes receive which punishments, and by punishing criminals in proportion to the crimes they commit, objective law prevents the initiation of physical force by racists and non-racists alike. Objective law promotes impartiality in the judicial system, which ensures that criminals will be properly punished for their crimes. We do not want a judge to give a criminal a harsher sentence because the judge disagreed with the criminal’s ideological motivations. For instance, we do not want Christian judges to more harshly punish atheist extremists who set fire to churches than Christian arsonists who burn abortion clinics. Such a system unfairly punishes atheists more harshly than Christians and undermines the notion that all men are equal under the law.
It is wrong for the government to outlaw ideas, for an idea by itself poses no threat to anyone. Freedom of speech rests on the same foundation. Someone can openly oppose all forms of government. He can even preach his anarchist ideas as much as he likes. However, he cannot be prosecuted unless he acts on them in a way that harms others, say by bombing a government building. In this case the bombing is the punishable crime, not the anarchist ideas that motivated it. Ideas, no matter how abhorrent, should not be censored. Those who support freedom of speech, even in the case of objectionable ideas, should not support hate crime legislation. Such legislation outlaws these ideas, and in doing so threatens freedom of speech.
Crimes that qualify as “hate crimes” are terrible and we are right to feel outraged when we learn of them, but classifying them as “hate crimes” is not the answer. Instead, we should morally condemn such crimes while simultaneously promoting a system of clearly-defined laws that punish those who engage in physical coercion.
Image courtesy Flickr user mira66.