Today President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal government’s power to prosecute hate crimes to include crimes committed on the basis of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability, and further expanding its existing powers to prosecute crimes committed on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. As the President remarked, “This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade. Time and again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed.”
Certainly, social conservatives pushed hard against this legislation, arguing that LGBT people didn’t deserve “special rights” based on what they see as immoral, sinful or even evil behavior. But it is not merely the purveyors of hate who oppose hate-crimes laws. Others argue that these laws effectively criminalize certain thoughts or opinions, and that they undermine the principle of equality before the law. Those who argue this may be well intentioned and legitimately concerned about civil liberties and legal equality, but they ignore the fundamental purpose and nature of hate crimes. Hate crimes are not merely ordinary criminal acts; they are acts of terrorism.
Terrorism is commonly defined as the use of violence to instill fear among a population in hopes of achieving a political goal. This is why people assassinate presidents and monarchs and blow up office towers and train stations: the hope that the population will become so fearful and demoralized that it will submit to the terrorists’ will.
Hate crimes operate on precisely the same principle. The point of beating up or killing a member of a certain group because they are a member of that group is to instill fear in all the members of that group. If a white racist lynches a black person, it is in the hope that black people will leave town, or at least live in enough fear of white people so as not to attempt to gain equality with them. If someone murders a gay person for being gay, it is in the hope that gay people will be too fearful to live openly and fight for equality. The goal of a hate crime is not merely to harm the immediate victim of the crime; it is to send a message to everyone else sharing the same attribute that caused that person to be the victim in the first place, a message that they are not safe and they’d better not try to live on equal terms, “or else” — or else they might wind up in the hospital or in the grave.
While hate-crimes laws are usually seen in terms of protecting members of minorities, this is not exclusively the case. For example, protection against hate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation does not just protect non-heterosexuals. Protection against hate crimes committed on the basis of race does not just protect non-whites. It is certainly true that a person is far more likely to be a victim of a hate crime because of being black or Jewish or gay than because of being white or Protestant or straight, but any victims of hate crimes based on whiteness or straightness or such will be protected too. It’s not the fault of the law that most hate crimes are perpetrated against certain groups of people. This law does not create groups of people who receive special treatment, inasmuch as just about everyone has a sexual orientation, a gender identity, a religion (or lack thereof), and so on. And contrary to popular belief, the law does not make any crime committed against a member of any group into a hate crime; the crime still has to be motivated by hatred. The cases of a black person and a white person murdered in the process of being robbed will be treated exactly the same way (i.e., not as a hate crime), and so would those of a gay person and a straight person. The law targets crimes based on motive, not on who the victim is.
The law also does not criminalize thought or speech. It is impossible to criminalize thought without being able to read people’s minds, and as for speech, it is still perfectly legal to stand on a street corner with a sign reading, “God hates fags,” even if that street corner is outside the funeral of the victim of a homophobic attack. So the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed the funeral of bill namesake Matthew Shepard, is safe, as are more mainstream hatemongers.
Indeed, perhaps the most valid criticism of the law is that it does not make anything illegal that was not already illegal, putting it in danger of being redundant. And it is true that it means certain resources will be dedicated to combating hate crimes that will not be available in the fight against other crimes. But if hate crimes are considered not as crimes but as acts of terrorism, dedicating extra resources to them seems eminently justifiable. And while it is debatable whether the law will actually help stop hate crimes, it does not seem likely to harm anyone either, other than the violent criminals who will be prosecuted under it.
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