BY A VOTE of 237 to 180, the House of Representatives voted on May 3 to broaden the federal hate-crime law, extending it to violent attacks based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. During debate on the bill, majority leader Steny Hoyer offered the familiar argument that crimes motivated by hatred are worse than other violent crimes and therefore deserve harsher punishment.
"Some people ask: Why is this legislation even necessary?" said Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. "Because brutal hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and identity, or disability not only injure individual victims, but also terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric."
When they introduced similar legislation in the Senate two years ago, Senators Ted Kennedy and Gordon Smith made a related argument: "Hate crimes . . . send the poisonous message that some Americans deserve to be assaulted or even murdered solely because of who they are. . . . These are crimes against entire communities."
But is a fixation with "hate" the right way to punish crime?
Two days after the House vote, as if to drive home the brutal reality of hate crimes, the Associated Press reported on a recent surge in violent, sometimes lethal, attacks by young thugs against members of an exposed and vulnerable minority group. Among the incidents described were the fatal bludgeoning of August Felix by three teenagers in Orlando last year; the bloody assault by punks with baseball bats on 58-year-old Jacques Pierre in Fort Lauderdale; the murder in Spokane of a one-legged man who was burned to death in his wheelchair; and the drowning of a woman in Nashville by two men who shoved her off a boat ramp into the Cumberland River.
Yet the hate-crime bill making its way through Congress wouldn't have done a thing about these vicious attacks. In the four cases above, as in scores like them around the country every year, the victims were homeless people -- and not even the most horrific assaults on the homeless are covered by federal hate-crime legislation.
To be sure, it doesn't take a federal law to make it a crime to beat a homeless man to death with baseball bats. But that's true of every violent crime, including the ones that would be covered by the bill in Congress. So why should "hate crimes" motivated by racial, religious, or sexual bigotry be punished more severely than equally hateful crimes motivated by contempt for the homeless? If a bunch of hoodlums murder a man by setting him on fire in his wheelchair, what moral difference does it make whether they despised him for being disabled (covered by the new bill) or for being a street person (not covered)? Is it worse to douse a man with gasoline and strike a match while shouting, "We hate cripples!" than to do the exact same thing while shouting "We hate the homeless" -- or "We hate skinheads" or "We hate Communists"?
It is indecent for the government to declare that a murder or mugging or rape is somehow more terrible when the murderer or mugger or rapist is motivated by bigotry against certain favored groups. The inescapable implication is that murders, muggings, and rapes committed against other groups are less terrible. In a society dedicated to the ideal of "equal justice under law" -- the words are chiseled above the entrance to the Supreme Court -- it is immoral and grotesque to enact legal rules that make some victims of hatred are more equal than others.
In fact, the law has no business intensifying the punishment for violent crimes motivated by bigotry at all. Murderers should be prosecuted and punished with equal vehemence no matter why they murder -- whether out of hatred or sadistic thrill-seeking or revenge or the promise of money. It is not the criminal's evil thoughts that society has a right to punish, but his evil deeds.
There are a host of other problems with the bill passed by the House -- it is of dubious constitutionality, it federalizes prosecutions that belong at the state level, and any act it would apply to is already illegal. But its most grievous failing is the one it shares with all hate-crime laws: By turning the criminal code into an affirmative-action schedule, they undermine social justice. They treat equal victims unequally, giving too much weight to the beliefs of an attacker -- and too little to the brutality of his attack.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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