Why ‘Hate Crime’ Laws Are All Wrong

After over a year of investigation, trial, sensationalism, outright lies by media outlets, and a trial that seemed vulnerable to going either way, the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has… entered a new phase. Unfortunately, I cannot write that it has ended, as a verdict of ‘not guilty’ appears insufficient for a presidential administration whose supporters and media collaborators jumped headlong into turning the case into a story of race and decided a man’s guilt without the advantage of having all of the facts.

Personally, unlike so many Americans who were not present for the incident in question and have scant evidence to go on, I do not hold a strong conviction one way or the other as to what truly happened. I can only say that it is a perfect illustration of the role of reasonable doubt in the American legal system—and reasonable doubt seems, in this case, to have showed up in droves.

Those who only followed along late in the trial will, however, have ample opportunity to catch up now as Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder has made evident his desire to pursue hate crime charges, if possible, against George Zimmerman. Despite an FBI investigation having concluded that he displayed no history of racial hatred, Holder is making a very public effort to bring forth hate crime charges, going so far as to ask civil rights groups and an already inflamed general public to act as their watchdogs, sending in any “tips” as to George Zimmerman’s alleged secret racism.

The accusations against Zimmerman as being a closet racist were spearheaded early on by the media, who have decisively set the tone (if not written the outcome) of the whole episode. Though the media’s injection of race into the equation has revealed America’s lingering moral uncertainty on the subject and demonstrated its potential for leveraging and abuse by public figures, it may, now, in this most recent federal stage of the case, point to a problem in our legal system considered too politically dangerous to touch for more than forty years.

The tip-toeing, apologetic way in which so many political figures, analysts, and media commentators dance around subjects deemed too sensitive or too sacred to challenge is a direct product of the politically correct, multiculturalist mentality that dominates our country’s dialogue on social issues such as race, ethnicity, gender, and religion.

The resulting psychology on the American left is one of paranoia (‘I don’t feel sexist, but deep down we’re all a little sexist and have reason to feel guilty for this fact.’), fear-mongering (‘Racists are everywhere. Even those who extol the equality of all men use such talk only to further a racial agenda.’), and the baseless tossing about of accusations usually used to convince some minority group that any economic or social policy supported by the right is secretly engineered to oppress minorities.

The right, meanwhile, as on so many issues, does little to help itself— either standing idly by and passively accepting the smears or stumbling through an explanation that attempts to both absolve themselves of guilt and compliment their accuser as innocently mistaken but well-intentioned. In the process, many issues in our legal and political system go untouched for fear of rousing such accusations.

One of these is the rationale behind the existence of ‘hate crimes.’ Codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, hate crime laws permit federal prosecution of anyone who “willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person’s race, color, religion or national origin.” Granted, the desire to punish perpetrators of such crimes seems to be an indisputably noble pursuit—as noble so as, say, the desire to punish someone who willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force for any other reason under the sun.

Therein lies the problem with hate crime laws. Such laws in no way expand the courts’ capabilities to punish crimes that would otherwise go unpunished. Rather, they seek to punish the same crimes based on the motivation behind their perpetration.  Two problems arise from this— the first moral, the second jurisprudential.

The first is that the more serious treatment of crimes driven by race, color, religion or national origin indirectly implies that any crime driven by other motivations—desire for unearned money or property, membership in a rival criminal organization (lest we forget gang violence), personal advantage, or sheer personal hatred—is in any way more acceptable or less heinous. Any honest observer who values individual rights and lives will, I think, see that no cause is better than any other for hurting another person.

The second problem is that hate crime laws leverage a loophole in the double jeopardy provision of our legal system. One cannot, in the United States, be tried more than once for the same crime. However, by virtue of the existence of a federal charge premised solely on the question of motivation, one can be tried once for the crime and again for the motivation behind the crime. A thought or prejudicial belief, however, is not an act of force, and hate crime laws cannot be brought against someone in the absence of tangible forcible harm, or the attempt to do harm, against another person. Therefore, one is, in a sense, being tried twice for the same act when the Department of Justice brings hate crime charges against someone who has already been acquitted of a crime at the state level.

The answer is clear: hate crime laws should be abolished. Despite the even more sensationalist objections that such a proposal will no doubt evoke, this in no way means that the perpetrators of violent acts in the name of race, religion, or national origin should or would go unpunished. It does not mean that the state is to view such crimes as any less condemnable than it already does. To the contrary. It means that the role of the courts is to punish the crime and not the motivation, treating comparable acts of violence as deserving of equal punishment and recognizing that no cause for the initiation of force is any more justified than another. Those who would object to such a revision and seek to continue the discrimination of crimes based on motive should ask themselves: is there a more rational cause for murder? A greater justification for kidnapping and assault? A better reason to rape? I think not.

Granted, hate crime laws carry far too much political weight and legal legroom for any who speak against them to reasonably hope for their repeal anytime soon. The Obama administration in particular has leveraged them significantly, raising 29% more hate crime charges in Obama’s first three years in office than in the previous three. However, it should be remembered that in the interim they leave the legal rights of many vulnerable to abuse and leave we the people with a federal judicial system that implicitly views some motivations for violent crimes as more acceptable than others.

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