Scott Tibbs

Back to opinion page.

"Hate crime" laws: a dangerous step toward totalitarianism

At both the national and state levels in our great country, the political Left is promoting legislation in response to crimes committed against people because of a bias against a particular group, acting out against a member of the disliked group. One example used as a rallying point is the murder of James Byrd in Texas, where racists drug hum from the back of a pickup truck, killing him in a most gruesome way.

The media and the political Left have referred to these atrocities as "hate crimes", a serious misnomer considering that a great many crimes motivated by hatred do not target an individual for his membership in the despised group. His is why so-called "hate crimes" would be more accurately referred to as bias crimes, because every crime involves some degree of hatred. If Joe steals $100 from a stranger's wallet while the stranger is distracted, he may not have any specific hatred toward his victim, but some degree of hatred is required to deprive his victim of his $100 for his own greedy aims.

As Heidi Hurd, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, points out in Congressional testimony, hate crime law is different from traditional criminal law because it targets the motivation for the crime, rather than the intent of the perpetrator.

Specifically, the political Left seeks to target for specific punishment motivations that they view as especially evil, that being bias against a particular group taking shape in racism, sexism or homophobic attitudes. One wonders why the Left has chosen these specific motivations as especially evil in comparison to motivations like greed or revenge.

Unfortunately, this is a reflection of our overly sensitive society, where feelings of bias or bigotry are automatically the height of evil in a Politically Correct society. One needs to only accuse someone of racism, for example, to immediately lessen the credibility of the target and his argument, even if the allegations of racism are baseless and even if alleged racist's ideas and proposals are well-founded and logical. Speakers on college campuses who have been branded with the "racist" tag are often shouted down while attempting to speak, while campus radicals often seize and destroy copies of college newspapers that contain so-called "racist" sentiments.

It is no surprise, then, that the Left would take an issue they are not traditionally strong on (the crime issue) and encourage stiffer sentences and more laws to punish the ideas that they find objectionable.

One could argue that increased penalties for bias crimes are justified because those crimes have an effect on the community the victim belongs to as a whole. A lynching of a black man, for example, inspires fear in the entire black population that they are also vulnerable to such violence. Since the fear produced by the crime has a wider effect than simple random violence, the racist murderer has not only hurt his victim, but affected many more.

But while such arguments have some validity, they are not sufficient to justify increased penalties for crimes based on bias against a particular group. In any case, bias-motivated crimes are not the only crime to have this effect. When a rape occurs on a college campus, many of the young women there legitimately feel threatened, frightened they could be the next victim, especially since college freshmen and sophomore women are statistically at a greater risk of being raped. Yet rape is not defines as a bias crime for special treatment by our legal system. The same could be said about a gruesome murder in a peaceful small town. Because such an event is rare, the entire town could be gripped with fear until the perpetrator is caught. And in many cases, the fear resulting from a peaceful existence shattered lingers long after the crime is resolved. Yet we don't see Leftist activists calling for stiffer punishments for criminals based on the geographical location of the crime.

Instead, a hallmark of our constitutional republic is that people are treated as individuals, not as groups. Individuals have equal protection under the law and are equally culpable for violating the law. We are not supposed to punish blacks more severely, for example, for a crime than we punish whites. On the same token, if two criminals perpetrate an identical crime, we should not punish one more harshly than the other because the motivation for the first person is out of tume with today's society's beliefs. Granted, we have some way to go to ensure equality for all people as individuals, but that does not mean we should intentionally take a step backward by passing hate crime legislation.

Another hallmark of our constitutional republic is that we have freedom of speech, thought, and conscience. I may disagree with what a person says, but I cannot use the sledgehammer of government to silence him from expressing his beliefs, or from holding beliefs that differ from mine. But bias crime legislation punishes people for the beliefs they hold. Society may find those beliefs wrong and destructive, but if we are to truly have freedom, we cannot punish people for their beliefs. And make no mistake about it: bias crime legislation punishes people for their beliefs. When two identical crimes are committed and one criminal gets a harsher sentence than another because of the beliefs that motivated the crime, we are outlawing thought.

How long is it, then, before bias crime legislation becomes legislation against speech? We already see how free speech is trampled on college campuses. How long until, in our zeal to prevent bias crimes, we curtail the speech that precedes the crime? If you think that this will only apply to groups like the KKK you're mistaken. If speech is curtailed to prevent bias crimes, eventually America's churches could be prohibited from teaching what the Bible says about homosexual behavior in an attempt to stop bias crimes against homosexuals. The danger of censorship is closer than you think: according to the Washington Times, 57% of "hate crimes" reported in 1995 were verbal in nature.

Everybody wants to see crime punished and innocents protected. But so-called "hate crime" laws are a step backward, not a step forward.