Friday, January 13, 2017

The Illogic of Hate Crime Legislation

Last week, four African-Americans kidnapped a mentally disabled, 18-year old Caucasian and tortured him for hours on Facebook Live. The victim was gagged, tortured, forced to drink toilet water, and endured racial epitaphs. While carrying out this despicable and sadistic act, the assailants were screaming "Fuck white people" and "Fuck Donald Trump." As a result of this heinous act, the Chicago Police attached hate crime charges to the initial charges. This racially charged crime brings up a question: Should hate crime laws exist?

A brief explanation on hate crime laws. While the statutes vary from state to state, hate crimes refer to prejudice-motivated crimes in which the perpetrator targets a victim because of a [perceived] membership within a given social group, typically one that is perceived as a protected class under the law. These characteristics are based on such factors as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. Under modern-day American jurisprudence, hate crimes are considered worse than regular crimes because hate crimes are considered conduct that inflict greater individual and societal harm. The biases that motive hate crimes are viewed as more likely to invoke retaliatory crimes, which contributes to the justification of the enhanced sentencing.

As someone who identifies as a libertarian or classical liberal, I strongly believe that people should be treated equally under the law. I know that justice is not equally applied in reality, but I would at least like to strive for an ideal in which justice is blind to differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

My main issue with hate crimes is that all violent crimes are by definition hateful. One is already showing plenty of hate and disregard for the individual that is being victimized simply by committing an act of assault, arson, sexual abuse, or murder. The message that hate crime legislation says is that the identity of the assailant and the identity of the victim somehow merit sentencing enhancement.

If Dylann Roof, the mass murderer of the Charleston church shooting in 2015 who killed nine black people, murdered nine white people instead, the victims would be equally dead. He would have shown the same disregard for human life. Doesn't murdering nine people adequately show hatred? Going back to the recent incident in Chicago, doesn't the kidnapping and torture of an individual already show hatred and disregard for others, regardless of the identity of the victim?

Better yet, who gets to define what is considered a hate crime? Hate crime legislation can be all too easily manipulated to score political points. Plus, hate crime legislation is semi-arbitrary because it is an ad hoc normative judgement that merely predicts which crimes will be pursued most aggressively. It punishes one's thoughts instead of punishing the heinousness of the act itself.

Don't get me wrong: motive plays a role in sentencing because it can be used to determine if the cause of a death or other form of harm was accidental or intentional. Beyond that, it becomes clear if an individual commits a murder, rape, kidnapping, or act of assault or torture, it is a safe bet that hate is motivating the violent act. If we are to get past divides on a racial, religious, or other level, we need to stop categorizing people and work towards the goal of blind justice and sending the message that murder, assault, and other violent crimes are an assault on human decency and justice, regardless of the identity politics of the perpetrator and the victim. Until then, we have legalized the mentality of "us" versus "them," and that is only going to lead to more divisiveness down the road.

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