Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Questioning the rationale for hate crime laws [updated]

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No to Hate

I’ve always been a strong supporter of hate crimes legislation and the enforcement of harsher punishment towards those who attack someone else solely because they’re part of some minority group. After all, such acts are not merely caused by the usual triggers of momentary anger, personal hatred, vengeance or material gain (and etc.), but simply because the victim looks, acts or thinks differently, which somehow seems to be even pettier a reason to cause them harm than anything else. It’s like they’re being attacked merely for existing, and in addition, such attacks are often purportedly intended to “send a message” to others of that particular minority group.

However, my position on this matter is starting to change. As time goes by and I read about more and more of these hateful acts, I’m actually becoming less and less certain whether “hate crimes” should be considered a distinct classification of criminal acts. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

Firstly, I don’t really think that the motive behind a criminal act should set that act apart from any other. For example, whether Person A attacks Person B because B ran over A’s dog, or because B stole from A, or (as per hate crimes) because B happened to be gay/Black/Muslim/etc., the end result is that A wanted to harm B and presumably succeeded. Why should there be a unique distinction between crimes committed because the victim was part of a minority group, as opposed to all other reasons, as various and oftentimes equally vile and irrational as they may be? This reasoning feels righteous – “good, the bigot gets locked up for longer” – but that’s just it. It’s a moral satisfaction, not a logical one.

Another argument used to support the rationale of hate crimes legislation and prosecution is that a hate crime is not merely an attack on one individual, but an offense aimed at an entire community. This, though, I have a stronger contention with, simply because I don’t think it’s true. Granted, I don’t exactly commit hate crimes, myself, and nor do I know anyone who has done so, so I can’t speak as though from experience. But it seems to me that if a thug sees and assaults someone in the street (or wherever else) because that person happens to be Black (or whatever else that constitutes a minority group in this current society), how can one know whether the aggressor attacked the victim to “send a message” to all Black people? How can one know that the reason wasn’t much more simple – that the thug simply saw a person with a skin tone he didn’t like and therefore saw fit to attack them?

Infographic: State Hate-Crime Laws
State Hate-Crime Laws
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The argument that hate crimes are an offense against an entire minority group seems to be derived from armchair psychology – ie. that such motives are simply guessed at after the deed is done, as though prosecutors could somehow read the aggressor’s mind and know that they wanted to attack a larger group of people by proxy of a single individual. Of course, there are noted cases where such was the case, where an attack took place specifically to make an entire ethnic group feel unwelcome and downtrodden and under attack. But I don’t feel it’s logical to extend this rationale that occurs in some cases and apply it to every other “hate crime”, as though all were the same. This seems obviously illogical to me, as as they simply aren’t.

Instead, I feel that hate crimes should be treated and prosecuted just as any other crimes that include physical assaults and/or discrimination-related attacks. If it’s murder, treat it as murder. If it’s theft, or vandalism, or assault/battery, and so on, then prosecute accordingly. I just see less of a reason to enforce specially harsher punishments for crimes that target minority groups – NOT because minority groups aren’t worthy of protection, of course, but because I don’t think it’s just (which is what the justice system is supposed to be about) to impart certain ethnic/cultural/religious/etc. groups with increased protections because our modern cultural mixture is such that they undergo offenses more frequently than the rest. Repeat victims shouldn’t be afforded extra protections; rather, we need to work on apprehending and punishing those who attack them.

Another issue with hate crimes legislation is that I have to wonder just what it actually accomplishes; ie. how efficient it is at its intended goal of actually curbing crimes aimed at members of minority groups. I haven’t seen any statistics or research on the matter. Do hate crime laws actually decrease the frequency of hate crimes where they are enacted? Do crime levels show a clear drop from the point where they’re signed into law (a reduction that can’t be attributed to some other cause(s))? In other words, do they work?

National Socialist Movement poster: “If it’s Brown, flush it down!”
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I don’t know, but I have a sneaking suspicion that as in such other cases, notably the War on Drugs where the use of drugs is criminalized and demonized without people actually hesitating to use them nonetheless, crimes, whether of “hate” or not, are being committed nonetheless, and probably at the same rate as they would be without hate crimes legislation. If there’s one thing that experience (and plain common sense) has taught me, it’s that humans who commit violent crimes tend to be remarkably stupid, stubborn and reckless, and will hardly be stopped by the threat of a few years (or more) of jail time if they get a hankering for beating on Blacks/gays/etc.

So, I have to ask: If a majority (if not the totality) of those who would commit hate crimes are not deterred by legal threats, as I doubt they are, then what is the use of such legislation in the first place if its primary objective falls flat?

Now, does this mean I advocate the repeal of hate crimes legislation? No. I just don’t know whether, at least from my point of view, hate crime laws should be supported or repealed, so until I make up my mind, I’m sticking with my default position and advocating their enforcement. If anything, it does feel good, in a vindictive sort of way, knowing that violent bigots who make life harder for people of minority groups are thrown behind bars for longer than average, thus sparing minority groups from their malicious presence for that much longer. But in the grander scheme of things, I have to know that legislation and laws such as hate crimes bills actually work and have a solid legal and moral basis for existing. And I’m less convinced than I used to be that they are.

I very much welcome debate on the matter. Whatever you think of hate crimes, the legislation aimed at curbing them and my take on the matter, I appreciate feedback and will happily hear and take into account other viewpoints. That’s where intellectual (and moral) growth comes from, after all.

Update: (10/13/10 8:35 PM) – It occurs to me, upon giving the matter some more thought, that I failed to make clear that this piece is essentially about debating the necessity of hate crime laws in theory. My point is that virtually all misbehavior that fits under hate crimes is already criminalized (murder, assault, discrimination, etc.), and that therefore, the additional regulations and punishments they ordain feel superfluous. However, this says nothing of the need for hate crime laws in practice, which is a matter of far greater debate and contention. The sad reality is that minority groups are easy targets and bigots are constantly sure to make this clear. It would therefore seem logical that these groups obtain increased protection, sort of like how VIPs need bodyguards in addition to regular law enforcement to ensure their safety. More prominent targets = bigger risk of attack = higher need for protection.

Yes, I am well aware that everything I just said is essentially a contradiction to my previous point about how “[r]epeat victims shouldn’t be afforded extra protections”; again, that was arguing the theoretical merits of these laws, not the pragmatic ones. As I said, I’m just not sure of anything anymore and I still need to mull it all over until I sort my feelings out on the issue.