In today’s “thinking out loud” piece, I talk about why so-called “hate crimes” ought to be classed as separate, more severe crimes than their non-ideologically-motivated similars.
Not long ago, I had a brief debate with a friend of mine. He was of the position that “hate crimes” — that is to say, crimes committed against a person or group specifically because of a group characteristic — should not be classed any differently from their non-ideologically-based cousins. The idea, as he suggested it, was that a given crime was a given crime, and that making the punishment worse for a crime against certain people and not others would be akin to “thought crime” or at least amount to privileging that group over others. A kind of “reverse racism” of crime, if you will.
Setting aside, for the moment, all the things that are wrong with the very idea of “reverse racism” — for example the idea that racism is only one-directional and can therefore be “reversed” — there is a very good reason for strong laws against hate crimes.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a Christian in America. It shouldn’t be a challenge, as the latest Pew data suggests 63% of Americans identify as such. Imagine that you are physically attacked — perhaps killed — by someone, because rightly or wrongly that someone suspected you of some slight against them. Perhaps they thought you stole money from them, interfered with their romantic relationship, or humiliated them in some fashion. A terrible crime, if it happens to you, and miserable for your family and friends as well.
Now imagine that you are still a Christian in America, but this time, when you are attacked, you are attacked because you are Christian. Now, not only are your family and friends upset, but so are all Christians. Why? Because the motive is a message. Because the crime was against your group. You weren’t attacked because you were you; you were merely a placeholder. Literally any other Christian would have been acceptable as an outlet for the perpetrator’s violence.
Literally every other Christian receives the message: I mean you harm. I am a threat to you.
We have a word for this, for threatening and inspiring fear in a population. That word is terrorism.
Hate crimes are terrorism: they use violence against members of a group to create fear in that group, often for political or ideological ends.
If you are gay and you are assaulted, it is assault; if you are gay and you are assaulted for being gay it is assault and a it is a threat to every other gay person. If you are black and your church is burned down, it’s arson; if you are black and your church is burned down because black people go there, it’s arson and a threat to every other church black people attend. If you are a woman and you are shot and killed it is murder; if you are a woman and you are shot and killed for being a woman it is murder and it is a threat to every other woman.
It is all the worse when the victim is a member of a group that lacks the privileges of the white, straight, Christian male demographic in America. It is all the worse if you are already afraid of simply being who you are in public, if it adds fear on top of fear and perpetuates a system of oppression present in America’s very economy.
A crime against you is a crime against you, and possibly against your close community. A crime against you because you are like others is a crime against you and a crime against everyone like you.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.