Friday, July 17, 2009

Conflicted about Hate Crimes

It's hard not to be excited about the passage of Federal Hate Crimes legislation - or should I say the passage of an amendment to a Department of Defense bill that also funds F-22 fighters and that Obama has said he will veto, even though he supports the Hate Crimes legislation (talk about conflicted). I'm certainly pleased at the Federal expression of respect and concern for GLBT persons (we don't get a lot of that at the Federal level - and even this one had to be hidden inside an entirely different bill). And I appreciate the clear statement that GLBT persons have the right to live unmolested lives free from violent attacks.

But there also is the problem with Hate Crimes legislation: the violent acts that are subject to Hate Crimes are already criminal acts. Hate Crime circumstances add further punishment only because of the particular motivation of the criminal: additional punishment not for what they did but for why they did it. That moves into the realm of punishing thoughts, which is a disturbing idea to me.

It certainly bothers me to have a car-full of thugs yell "faggot" at me on the sidewalk as they drive by in their car. But that's their freedom of speech, which I support even when repugnant speech. It may even frighten me if the same incident happens late at night as I'm walking away from a gay bar. But still the speech shouldn't be a crime unless there's some evidence of an actual threat of violence. And if the guys do get out of the car and attack me with baseball bats I want them arrested and tried and punished for the attack not for the words they're yelling or what they're thinking but not saying. I can't imagine that I would be any more hurt or frightened if they were yelling "faggot" than if they were yelling "Unitarian" or "Dodger-fan" or saying nothing at all. So why punish them more severely for one word than for other words or no words?

The argument I've heard to support Hate Crimes legislation, is that because the attack is directed at a class of persons (all faggots) rather than a particular person, that the crime is different from an attack motivated by robbery or choosing a victim at random. All GLBT persons are victims of a hate crime, not just the person being beaten, and therefore the punishment needs to be harsher.

But the argument that when a gay bashing occurs across town I'm somehow a victim while I'm sitting comfortably at home, makes no sense. The attacker is targeting that gay person, not all gay persons (although any gay person could have been the victim). A robber is targeting that person's wallet, not all people with wallets (although anyone would do). A psycho bent on random violence is targeting that random person, not all people (although it might have been anyone).

The Hate Crimes designation affords special protection but it also comes with the implication that GLBT persons are special victims and it is time for our community to reject that roll not to further embrace it.


Lizard Eater said...

What makes me pause is that recently I read that the underlying purpose of federal hate crimes legislation was not to add punishment to an existing appropriate sentence, but to enable Federal law enforcement to intervene in cases where local law enforcement was not taking a crime seriously.

There are so many cases where a town has turned a blind eye to a crime, or just given a slap on the wrist, because the victim came from a historically marginalized community, whether it be black, gay, hispanic, etc.

I wish we could get past the rhetoric and find out the *real* purpose. Is it to prevent the terrorism of a group? Is it to step in when local law enforcement is ignoring its responsibility? Or is it just political rhetoric? I don't know.

Bill Baar said...

A car full of guys calling some one a faggot is a crime. You intimate and threaten someone it's a crime. I fear this kind of law is the first step towards Canadian like courts to go after political views the left doesn't like, and that would be a very bad thing.