Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why does hate matter?

In the wake of events like Sunday's shootings in Overland Park, KS, people often ask what is so different about a hate crime. Conventional logic tells us that in order to violently victimize someone, you would have to at least dislike if not hate that person. Still, the law distinguishes between “regular” crimes and “hate” crimes. Why?

Part of the insidious nature of hate crimes is that they are not just committed against one person. Rather than targeting a person for some perceived wrong he/she committed, the suspect in a hate crime targets a person simply because they are a member of a certain group (or believed to be a member of that group). It is a crime against an entire community of people based solely on a characteristics that are largely outside of their control like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion. Because hate crimes are perceived as attacks on entire groups, there is elevated risk of retaliation and escalating violence.

There are two very important lessons to take away from the tragic crimes in Kansas. The first is that a victim need not belong to a minority group to be the victim of a hate crime. What matters for the purposes of hate crimes charges is that they were targeted because the perpetrator believed they belonged to a certain group. In this case, the victims were chosen because of their suspected affiliation with two Jewish institutions. While all three were Christian, according to media reports, that is not the important factor in the decision to charge the alleged perpetrator with a hate crime.

What matters for hate crime charges is whether victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group. It does not matter whether that group is a minority or a majority in our society. The same charges could be leveled against a perpetrator who shot people outside of a mosque or outside of a Christian church because he/she believed the victims were members of that religion. Members of majority or minority groups may be victims of hate crimes.

Perhaps the more important takeaway from this crime is that hate crimes legislation does not criminalize speech. It only increases the punishment for criminal acts. One of the reasons given for opposing hate crimes legislation is that such laws punish people for exercising their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech. According to news sources, the suspect in the recent case had a history racist, anti-Semitic speech documented through letters, campaign ads, and over 12,000 internet postings on one site alone. None of those were charged as hate crimes. They were not hate crimes. In order for someone to be charged with a hate crime, they must commit a criminal act. Hate crimes legislation does not impinge on individuals’ freedom of speech. The suspect was only arrested on hate crimes charges once he resorted to violence, a criminal act. Speech is not a hate crime unless the person commits or incites violent, criminal acts.

Hate crime prosecutions are not about controlling the exercise of free speech. They are not just committed against "the others" in society. They are about increasing penalties for individuals who commit a crime against a person or group for what they are, not who they are. Hate matters because it preys on fear, misinformation, and anger to incite violence. Hate matters because it breaks the bonds that hold us together as a city, a state, and a country. Hate matters because crimes against individuals based on their membership in a group depersonalize victims and alienate entire communities from the larger society.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services