THE HORRIFYING MURDER of Matthew Shepard, and the response that murder has triggered, demonstrate important truths.
1. First and foremost, it demonstrates that evil is everywhere. It does not erupt only among the uncultured. Laramie, Wyo., is a liberal college town, home to the state university, a place with no shortage of advanced degrees and sophisticated tastes. But education alone does not make people moral or drive away the indecent. Shepard met his accused killers at the Fireside Lounge, a University of Wyoming hangout. Chastity Pasley, one of the women arrested as an accessory to his murder, is pursuing a degree in art. The educated are as capable of savagery or hatred as anyone else, and murder is no less likely in a university town than in a redneck backwater.
2. What happened to Matthew Shepard is more evidence, as if more were needed, of why a just society must have the death penalty. If Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney did what they are charged with doing -- kidnapping Shepard, robbing him, tying him to a fence, beating him into a coma, and leaving him to die -- they should be put to death. For some crimes, there is no retribution short of the noose or the electric chair. Only by executing brutal murderers can society proclaim unambiguously its abhorrence for their crime. A criminal-justice system that sentences such people to a mere prison term declares, in effect, that what they did wasn't so bad.
3. The claims of activists notwithstanding, the atrocity in Laramie does not indicate a nationwide "epidemic" of violence against homosexuals. If anything, it indicates the opposite. Shepard's slaying made headlines not because such things occur to gay men all the time, but because they don't. When a young man is beaten to death by anti-homosexual bigots, it makes Page 1 -- that is how unusual it is.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 21 Americans were killed in 1996 because of their sexual orientation. That figure doesn't square with FBI statistics, which include only 12 murders among all reported hate crimes that year. But even if the higher number is right, it means that anti-gay homicides comprised just one-10th of 1 percent of all US homicides in 1996. That is not an epidemic.
4. Likewise, the tidal wave of revulsion over Shepard's death shows that violence against gays is not treated with indifference in this country. It has been passionately condemned -- by the president, on scores of editorial pages, by the hundreds of demonstrators who marched in Laramie on Sunday and the thousands more who will participate in some 50 candlelight vigils around the country this week. Would that there were similar anguish for other victims of lethal attacks. Twenty thousand men, women, and children will be murdered in America in 1998. Virtually none of them will be mourned in candlelight vigils, or written about in this newspaper.
5. Once more we see the moral obnoxiousness of the word "homophobia," a pseudo-psychological slur that lumps together anyone critical of homosexuality -- from Laramie-style thugs to the pope. It is a term as insulting to the victims of gay-bashing as it is to traditional Christians, Muslims, and Jews for whom anti-gay violence is unthinkable.
The men who murdered Shepard were not in the grip of a mental disorder. They were not sick. They were evil, and like most evildoers, they are responsible for their crime. Gay-bashers are no more motivated by a "phobia" of homosexuals than neo-Nazis are motivated by a phobia of Jews. What animates them is what animates all violent bigots: hatred, cruelty, sadism, bloodlust.
Especially contemptible is the notion that good people who disapprove of homosexual behavior on religious grounds are part of a "climate" that leads to tragedies like Laramie. That is as repugnant as suggesting that liberals who denounced Reaganomics created the "climate" that produced John Hinckley, or that environmentalists were to blame for the Unabomer.
6. Finally, the Shepard case makes clear why there is no need for yet another federal hate-crimes law.
President Clinton and many gay leaders want Congress to pass a bill giving federal prosecutors vast new powers to target hate crimes, and adding gays and lesbians to the list of officially protected groups. This widened federal jurisdiction would be on top of laws already passed in 21 states that increase the penalties for crimes committed because of sexual orientation.
Yet if anything should be obvious, it is that no new law is needed to punish the tormentors of Matthew Shepard. Everything they did -- kidnapping, aggravated robbery, murder -- is covered by Wyoming's criminal code. There is no state where prosecutors would ignore such monstrous crimes or fail to demand the harshest punishment available.
It shouldn't matter why the murderers in Laramie did what they did. They should be punished because of their deeds, not because they are bigots. Would Shepard's parents be weeping any less bitterly if their son had been killed because he was short? Or because his attackers wanted his wallet? Any law that declares some victims more equal than others is unjust on its face. To cloak certain groups with special protection is implicitly to signal that other groups may be assaulted with impunity. What a travesty that would make of Matthew Shepard's death.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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