Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hate Crimes

There's been another anti-Semitic killing. Time to start discussing hate crime designation again...

As members of a minority group, especially one with such a distinguished history of persecution as us Jews have, we are very sensitive to hate. Hate provides perhaps the most passionate motivation, and leads to actions only performable by people who feel a certain depth of the emotion. Last week, one such person walked in the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and killed a security guard. Were it not for the actions of the other guards, more people may have died.

When such a disgusting crime happens, the topic of hate crime designation usually bubbles to the surface, with various groups and people calling for clearer distinctions and stronger punishments of hate crimes. The basic idea is this: crimes committed under motivation of hate towards the victims because of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc, should be punishable by stronger, tougher penalties.

The irony in this is that many of those who make this argument have previously suffered under the same injustices in law that they are now arguing be applied to other people. Groups like the NAACP and the ACLU support such a distinction in the law (as do groups that I am a member of, such as the ADL), groups who represent people who once were prejudiced against in the same manner in the legal environment. The law in American is supposed to apply equally to everyone (this was their war cry when actions did not match theory), yet they now argue for unequal application of the law.

I’ve never supported hate crime designation for three basic reasons. First, it does not create any additional protection of groups targeted by hate mongers. It makes nothing new illegal. It simply adds the distinction of “hate” to current crimes like murder, rape, and assault. This does not do anything for me.

Second, it punishes people for what is in their head. This goes against everything the United States was founded on. Whether a woman is raped because she is black or because she is a woman is irrelevant to the crime committed: a woman was raped. To somehow say that because the man was racist he deserves a harsher punishment is to pass judgment on that man’s thoughts, which of course under the First Amendment he has every right to think and believe however he chooses. Would this man have chosen a white woman were he not racist? It could matter less, because the action is what ought to be punishable, and either way that action is rape.

Third, it is not always easy to apply the “hate” designation to a crime. In the case of Von Brunn, we know he was anti-Semitic because he had written and spoken extensively on his ideology. Not all cases are that clear. Many oppose the death penalty because often enough innocent people get killed. In the case of a hate crime, proving the crime is usually much easier than the hateful intent. Tagging on additional years because of a “hate” designation may put people behind bars for longer than they deserve.

We already have enough crime laws out there to protect us. Why we need, why we benefit, from a special “hate” designation is not nearly strong enough to justify the action. We, as American citizens, are to be treated equally and identically under the law. Special designations for motivation go against this tenant.

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