31 March 1995

Hate crimes: affirmative action for murderers

Of the countless motives for violent crime, hate is only one. It happens to be the one singled out in a new hate crimes law, approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee March 23. What the legislation fails to recognize is that hate and crime are two different things. We can outlaw the crimes, and punish the criminals, but we will never eliminate the many human passions which lead some of us to violence, nor should we try.

In 1965, a group of extremists from the Nation of Islam murdered their former leader, Malcolm X, because they had come to disagree profoundly with his moderated views on racial harmony. They hated him, and they killed him, but that's not the sort of hate that "hate crime" legislation is designed to abolish. Hate, by law, exists only between people of different races, sexes and sexual orientations, and seems to be the only thing our politicians remain willing to condemn.

Hate is an ugly thing, but is it the ugliest thing? Is it worse than greed, worse than jealousy, worse than the soulless disregard for human life so evident on our streets today? When motivated by love of money, rather than hate of homosexuals, murder is no less abhorrent, its victims no less dead, and its perpetrators no less deserving of punishment. If convicted, the four young men who allegedly killed Michael Burzinski in Houston last summer deserve execution - not because their victim was gay, but because he was human; not because they hated him, but because they killed him.

The murder of Nicole Brown Simpson last June could hardly have been more savage, yet, if we are to accept the prosecution's theory, she was killed for love. Our feelings, thoughts and prejudices, no matter how repugnant, are personal. Our actions, insofar as they affect others, are not.

In his treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill asserted that the state's power may only be legitimately exercised over any individual "to prevent harm to others." Mill did not believe all values to be equal, only to be equally deserving of protection from government suppression. It is individuals, not the state, who "owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former." It is upon just such a delicate balance of freedom and responsibility that our own nation's heritage of liberty was founded, and which hate crime legislation threatens to disrupt.

There are already laws against murder and assault. By establishing a penalty for the motive of hate, we create a separate punishment for particular opinions. The merits of those opinions aside, it is only a matter of time before a government, intent on eliminating "root causes," begins prosecuting opinions separately from actions. We have, after all, begun prosecuting guns separately from armed robbers.

If the experience of the former Soviet Union showed us anything, it is that no government, by any extreme of indoctrination or coercion, can ever truly control people's minds. Controlling thoughts is exactly what hate crime laws are designed to do, and exactly what the First Amendment is designed to prevent. It is easy, after all, to defend Billy Graham's right to speak his mind, but it took the Supreme Court to defend the Nazi Party's right to march in Skokie, Illinois. The right to speak our minds freely is delineated in the Constitution, not because we all agree, but because we disagree. The founders recognized that it is all too easy for governments to outlaw speech that is offensive, and, in so doing, to legitimize government regulation of opinion.

The last thing we need in Texas is affirmative action for murderers, or victims. If the penalty for murder needs to be harsher for racists or gay-bashers, then it needs to be harsher for all killers. If the Klansman alone faces justice, it is not he alone who will pay. While the do-gooders pat themselves on the back for stamping out hate, the widows and orphans of "ordinary" crime must live with their tragedies, wondering whether a society which punishes some deaths more severely, considers some lives less worthwhile.

If we truly seek to protect all races, creeds, orientations and sexes from violence, then singling out preferred victims is the wrong way to do it. We can no more outlaw hate crimes than we can outlaw hate, much as we wish that we could. Our laws must prohibit murder, not motive; value lives, not lifestyles; and protect one race: the human race.

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