Silly Arguments Against Hate Crimes Legislation
Obviously, intent matters. If someone is attacking people of a particular religious, ethnic or sexual orientation in an effort to harass, provoke or intimidate members of said group, it may be a good idea to assess additional punishment, particularly if a history of animosity and violence is involved. There may be practical reasons not to take this approach – federalizing enforcement is frequently ineffective; racial and religious animosity has subsided in recent decades – but it seems to me that special conditions can justify special enforcement strategies.
Remember that motivation isn’t the issue here – intent is. Attacking a black person to coerce or intimidate other black people is materially worse than randomly assaulting some unfortunate passerby. The later is aimed at only one person; the former targets a (potentially vulnerable) community.
In this particular case, there really isn’t a history of animosity towards transients comparable to the experience of, say, Black Americans. This doesn’t invalidate the entire notion of hate crimes legislation.
On a related note, my roommate is a cop, and according to him, hate crimes prosecutions are exceedingly rare. A lot of people seem to think that targeting crimes motivated by religious, racial or sexual animosity will lead to a rash of spurious prosecutions. The reality (at least in Northern Virginia) is just the opposite – prosecutors are reluctant to use hate crimes statutes because intent is so difficult to prove.
UPDATE: First, it was wrong of me to characterize the arguments against hate crimes legislation as “silly.” Consider the title of this post redacted.
Second, John Schwenkler was kind enough to respond to my post. Here’s the crux of his argument:
True, attacking someone as a means to coerce or intimidate or – perhaps – harass or provoke is reasonably regarded as a more serious crime than “mere” random assault, and it doesn’t seem inappropriate to include within the law a category that defines it as such; we do just this sort of thing, after all, in differentiating murder from manslaughter. But obviously it shouldn’t matter at all whether such a behavior was gone in for as a consequence of hatred for some vulnerable group rather than, say, some other sociopathic tendency or perhaps the desire to draw attention to some political cause.
I tend to think that crimes committed with the intent to harass or intimidate any group are bad, but crimes committed with the intent to harass or intimidate a historically marginalized group are worse. I also think there’s a fair case to be made that certain groups should receive additional protection in the form of more severe criminal punishment for offenders. If a particular crime is more likely to take place or more abhorrent than your run-of-the-mill offense, I’m in favor of prosecuting it more severely.
Granted, a lot of this is context-dependent, and I don’t think federal legislation is really necessary, but under the right circumstances I can see how hate crimes enforcement could be justified.