Hate Crime Laws Will Not Eliminate Hate
by Sean Tuffnell
February 09, 1999
Walking home from work one evening last February, I was approached by a street thug who pressed a gun to my arm and demanded my wallet. Without waiting for my response, he proceeded to blow a hole in my arm and empty his handgun at me as I fled the scene. Thankfully, he was a terrible shot. The hole through my bicep and a slight grazing of my forearm were his only hits.
In the aftermath of that harrowing experience, I learned a hard lesson - namely, that evil is an all-too common, everyday fact of life. Whether it be a terrorist who car bombs a government building, a local drug pusher who targets our children, or a thug on the streets of our nation's capitol, evil is played out in the actions of our fellow man. No one is immune from its reach.
In my case, debate quickly unfolded among the local authorities about my attacker's motivation. Did he shoot me because he wanted cash? Some thought that to be unlikely, because he didn't bother to wait for a response, nor did he take any of my personal belongings. The other main theory was summed up by one of the investigators when he asked rhetorically: "Did he just want to shoot a white guy?" Just for the record; I'm white, my assailant was black.
Determining motive has taken on new importance in today's politicized crime climate, where finding new and innovative ways to exonerate perpetrators has become an art form. Under current law, if my assailant had been motivated by cash, his actions would have been classified as attempted robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. If, on the other hand, he just wanted to shoot a white guy, some clever attorney could seek to classify it as a "hate crime." If this latter motive seems improbable to you, consider the widespread belief that some minority street gangs require their gangster wannabes to shoot an Anglo as a rite of passage.
Supporters of current hate crime laws, and for their expansion, point to the brutal killings of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming student beaten to death by two men allegedly because he was gay, and to James Byrd, the 49 year-old African-American from Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to death behind a pickup, to bolster their argument. While most everyone is in agreement that these two incidents were heinous, hate crime law supporters believe that it is not enough that the perpetrators may be sentenced to death for murder. Oh no, they argue. A signal must be sent because, these two acts were committed by people who had hate in their hearts.
But here's the catch. For our legal system to work among the country's highly diverse population, laws must be based on the premise that justice will be applied equally. We cannot have the courts prescribe different standards of punishment just because some crimes are deemed to be motivated by hate. Are greed, jealousy and lust "lesser" motivations?
Hate crime laws force lady justice to focus her attention in the wrong place. It looks past the evil acts and instead focuses on who the victim is. It says to victims, "If you can be categorized as white or heterosexual, than you can expect your attacker to be dealt with using one set of rules. But if you are black or homosexual, guess what - crimes against you are more serious and will be dealt a more severe punishment."
Finally, any proposal that seeks to maintain or expand hate crime laws instantly raises the no-win question as to whether there are such things as "thought crimes." And if, down the road, we answer yes, there isn't a living soul on earth who would be exempt from prosecution.
All evil acts begin with hate in the heart. In the split second it took for me to encounter evil first-hand and become its victim, I learned this lesson. Since then I also have come to believe that it is not the place of the criminal justice system to punish people for their hatred.
In the end, my attacker's motive was not a big concern to me. All I want to this day are for his actions to be punished, as stringently and as swiftly as blind justice allows. I will leave the punishing of the evil that guided him to his final judge.