Archive for Saturday, December 4, 1999


December 4, 1999


— It's too bad that we are stuck with the moniker "hate crimes." The label makes it sound as if it were a crime to hate. It's given opponents of hate crime laws a handle for all sorts of cliches: "Every crime is a hate crime.'' "Nobody commits a love crime.''

Today it's become politically correct -- in the true meaning of that phrase -- to disparage laws that make it worse to commit a crime when the motive is bias. It's become popular to belittle the notion that society has an investment in upping the ante on such acts of bigotry.

Hate crimes are on the docket again because this week the Supreme Court decided to hear the case of Charles C. Apprendi. Five years ago, Apprendi, a white pharmacist in Vineland, N.J., fired his rifle into the home of the only African-American family in his neighborhood. He told the police he wanted to give the family a message that they didn't belong.

Of course, by the time the trial came around, Apprendi denied that he was motivated by the color of their skin: brown. What set him off, he said, was the color of their door: purple. The judge, however, decided that the crime was racially motivated and so, under the New Jersey law on hate crimes, a 5- to 10-year sentence was kicked up to 12 years.

Now Apprendi has come to the Supreme Court demanding that a jury, not a judge, decide his motives.

The New Jersey case is a relatively minor shot at the target of hate crime laws. But Apprendi's lawyers are trying to rein in the law. They are counting on the view that hate is too dicey an emotion, too elusive a motive.

This is what's happening to hate crime legislation: In the 1980s more than 40 states passed laws against crimes of bias, crimes committed against someone on the grounds of their religion or race.

Not a single hate crime law has passed since the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Not a single existing law has been expanded to include homosexuality since the murder of Matthew Shepard. A Senate bill that would have accorded the modest federal hate-crime protection to sexual preference and gender was just rejected by Congress.

A crime is a crime is a crime, we are told. What difference does it make, opponents ask, if you attack a person as an individual or on account of his race, her religion, their sexual preference? What difference does it make if Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered because he was gay or because he was, say, short? What difference does it make if a hate crime penalty is added on to a murder conviction? Two life sentences?

Well, in fact, you cannot add on to a death sentence, and the families of murder victims do feel their pain equally, regardless of the killer's motives. But most hate crimes are not murder and it's absurd -- disingenuous -- to deny the difference between these and ordinary crimes.

There was, after all, a huge difference between Kristallnacht -- the night the Nazis rampaged through Jewish homes and businesses -- and ordinary vandalism. And there is enormous difference between shooting someone's house because of the color of his door and because of the color of his skin.

Hate crimes, bias crimes, are disproportionately crimes against people, not property. They are committed, the research tells us, by strangers, by groups, by "thrill seekers.'' They tend to escalate from a broken window to a broken bone.

But more than that they are, in Brian Levin's words, "a crime against community and a crime against a pluralistic society.'' A former police officer who is now a professor at California State University in San Bernardino, Levin has been studying hate crimes for 14 years and has come to believe that crimes motivated by bias "imprint on the rest of society a level of distrust. They're additional poison injected into society.''

I don't deny that it can be hard to uncover someone's motive. Not everyone confesses or leaves graffiti on a sidewalk. We cannot read minds or punish people for their bigoted "feelings.'' But motive often plays a part in punishment and courts often wrestle with this problem of "why.''

Today hate crime laws are often criticized as a kind of criminal affirmative action, "special protection'' for "special classes of victims.'' In fact they apply to everyone and have since the first Supreme Court case upheld a hate crime law when a black man urged a crowd to assault a white passerby yelling, "There goes a white boy. Go get him.''

So, it isn't a crime to hate. But when crime is based on bias or bigotry, when it's as directed as an act of terrorism against an entire group, it carries an extra and public dimension. That's when there -- still -- ought to be a law.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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