The very idea of hate crimes laws drives some people deeply into the forest of confusion, where they forget that speech and belief is punished all of the time, and that doing so is not some kind of violation of one's constitutional rights. One's constitutional rights have some common sense limits: I cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater, I cannot say (as someone once said to me–seriously) "I'm going to put a cap in your ass." Unable to countenance such distinctions, Richard Cohen, some kind of liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes an extremely confused op-ed wherein he rejects the entire idea of hate crimes legislation. The whole piece hinges on the following snippet in the Senate discussion of hate crimes laws:
"A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected."
Let's do some googling before we read Cohen. And when we do, we find that the passage he cites is not the definition of a hate crime, but rather a "finding." Here is the definition:
the term “hate crime” has the meaning given such term in section 280003(a) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (28 U.S.C. 994 note).
Ok, so now more googling:
(a) DEFINITION- In this section, `hate crime' means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.
Cohen ignores that–but refers instead to the "findings" of the new 2009 bill, and attacks that as if it were the very definition and sole motivation for their being hate crimes legislation. That makes the rest of the argument a hollow man–in that he attacks an argument no actually makes. He writes,
He [James von Brunn] also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected." No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes?
How is "pre-meditated murder" different from "unpremeditated murder"? How is killing a police officer in the line of duty different from killing a rival mafioso? Why is it especially heinous to commit offenses against children and the elderly? Not all murders are the same, sometimes they have special conditions (premeditation), sometimes they have special victims (police, children, politicians). None of this is unusual or strange.
Cohen's argument stinks in other ways. He alleges a slippery slope without attempting to establish it.
The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That's nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what's being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it's not as if the crime is not being punished. The added "late hit" of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy.
Criminal acts of speech, thought, expression (and even religion) get punished all of the time. It's not that hard to draw relevant distinctions (there will certainly be hard cases, but that's what the judiciary is for).
This op-ed is too full of confusion for one post, so I'll stop with the following:
I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime.
Um–I really doubt this, but it also seems irrelevant.