Thursday, May 03, 2007

"We Call Them Terrorists"

Brad Plumer discusses the stock conservative arguments against the proposed Hate Crimes law winding its way through Congress. Though there are some unbelievably dumb arguments against this bill (that it equals slavery, or that it's a massive Jewish conspiracy), the ones Plumer hits are at least somewhat serious and plausible.

There appear to be four main objections to the hate crime bill. First, that it will infringe on free speech rights. The bill seems rather carefully crafted to distinction between violent actions and discriminatory speech, with the latter still enjoying protection. So, as Plumer puts it, Tony Perkins can still gay-bash as often as he wants, so long as he doesn't start actually physically attacking them. I'm fine with that distinction. The second argument is that local law enforcement doesn't need the help. But at worst, then, we have a redundancy, and there are plenty of examples where local cops could either use extra resources, or aren't equipped to handle hate crimes, or simply don't care that gay people get beaten up. I am not sufficiently confident in the ability of local police forces in very conservative areas to take seriously hate and violence against gay and lesbian Americans--especially when it doesn't rise to the sensationalized violence that brings national cameras. The third is that the bill doesn't protect certain other classes, like members of the armed forces or the elderly. The problem is that's the Republicans' fault--color me unsympathetic. And the fourth is that the bill may not deter hate crimes. But as Plumer points out, even if true, deterrence is not the only reason we have criminal laws.

And this is the critical point. This bill is principally a statement about motives, not victims. Indeed, this is why the bill covers me if my attacker simply thinks I'm gay. And it covers me if a radical gay activist decides to go on a killing spree against straight people. The point is that the state of mind of the attacker--be it to "send a message to the queers" or "give heterosexuals a taste of their own medicine"--is particularly condemnable. We all agree that motive matters when talking about culpability. Murdering mom to get the inheritance is worse than murdering her in a drunken rage, is worse than murdering her because she physically abused you. We know this. And much of the distinctions in criminal law are defined by what we, as a society, have to say about particular motives. In this case, the motive that gay Americans are subhuman. The motive that they do not deserve to be members of our community. The notion that all gay people, not just the particular victim of the violence, is worthy of being attacked and abused. This bill sends an important message about what is and is not tolerated in the American community:
But many if not most hate-crime offenders refuse, even after incarceration, to admit that what they did was morally wrong. This is because they believe they are acting on the unspoken wishes of their previously homogeneous community, and thus taking action on a moral plane all their own.

This is why it's important for communities to stand up and be counted when hate crimes occur in their midst. Making public their utter condemnation of such acts sends an important message to the would-be perpetrators: the community does not condone violence to expel outsiders. Using the stiff arm of the law to back that message up is essential, especially when the need is so clear.

Conversely, pretending that a swastika on a synagogue is just another case of vandalism, or treating (especially in law enforcement terms) a "fag bashing" as just another bar fight, sends quite another message, one that in the mind of a hate-crime perpetrator equates with approval. A slap on the wrist is too often seen as a pat on the back; equanimity as forbearance.

You saw this all the time in Southern lynch-law cases. Even though killing is against the law, the perpetrators of those hate crimes had every reason to believe that the community tacitly condoned the sentiments motivating the act. Even if they would prosecute the murders (and that was rare enough), nothing was done to breakdown the notion that the motivation, too, was immoral. In such a context, it is so important to be very explicit in sending the opposing message. The South needed to be told--in the clearest possible way--that not only was murder wrong, but that the entire desire to force Black Americans into submission was reprehensible and rejected by the broader community.

As Steny Hoyer pointed out in a breath-taking floor speech (scroll to Hoyer's second clip), in America today we also know of people--people of faith, even--who kill and slaughter because they hate the group their targets belong to. We call them terrorists. They attack us, by their own admission, not because they have met us and dislike us, and not because they are drunk. They attack us because we're Americans. Or Christian. Or Jewish. And despite the fact that murder remains illegal, we have anti-terrorism laws to deal with these people. As we should. The action of these men exists on a different moral plane from run-of-the-mill murderers. Murderers' victims are limited. Terrorists target the entire group towards whom they express their hate. When Nasrallah orders rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, I'm affected too, because his stated motivation is to kill Jews across the world. The slaughter is meant to send a message to me, as well, and I hear it loud and clear.

The people who kill to express hate, to strike fear across whole populations and groups, are terrorists. There can be no distinctions. And so, the Americans who would kill gay and lesbian Americans, like those who would bomb abortion clinics, like those who engaged in lynchings in the south, are terrorists. Their motive is hate. They believe that the people are behind them. Our job, our duty, is to prove them wrong in the most emphatic of terms. That's the message of this bill. And that's why it needs to be passed.


Anonymous said...

"I am not sufficiently confident in the ability of local police forces in very conservative areas to take seriously hate and violence against gay and lesbian Americans--especially when it doesn't rise to the sensationalized violence that brings national cameras."

Damn, son, have you read Amnesty's "Stonewalled" report? I'm not confident in the ability of police officers to refrain from commiting hate violence towards gay and lesbian Americans. And matters are infinitely worse for transfolk.

PG said...

Right on, except maybe for the abortion clinic bit.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I am completely on board with hate-crime laws. If a kid spray paints a swashtica on a synagage, I do not see how the punishment should be worst (or a seperate law is required) than if the same kid spray painted "Fxxx off and die" on my front door. Explain why new laws (hate-crime laws) are needed in the following cases: someone marching on to a school campus and killing randomly a bunch of students. (All students have nothing more in common other than being students). The next case is someone marches into a gay bar and killing randomly a bunch of customers. (Customers have nothing more in common other than most customers are gay).

New laws are not going to have any impact on your confidence levels in local police forces. If they are not enforcing the current laws, I doubt new laws will change that.

PG said...

If the local police are not enforcing the current law, hate crime statutes empower federal law enforcement to enforce the law.

Someone who is a student on the campus is likely to commit a crime there -- the majority of crimes are committed among people who know each other. The VA Tech killer seems to have been motivated by an awareness that he was an outsider in that community. If a gay man who hung out at the gay bar went nuts and committed a mass killing there, I wouldn't charge him with a hate crime. If a straight man who had a history of hatred toward homosexuals went in and started gunning down while proclaiming he was doing the work of Christ, I think it's a different case and it's reasonable to treat it differently.