House votes to expand hate crime law; a bit of ambivalence…

I have to admit to a bit of conflict here:

Bush threatens to veto expansion of hate-crime law
— The long-debated bill would expand the federal law to include violent acts motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability.

WASHINGTON — The House, defying a fresh veto threat, passed legislation today to expand the federal hate-crime law to include violent acts motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability.

The 237-180 vote came hours after President Bush threatened to veto the bill, which would mark the first major expansion of the hate-crime law since it was passed in 1968 with Republican support. The Senate is expected to follow suit soon. (Story.)

At a glance this one might seem like a no-brainer. Ours is a society where way too much of what goes on is driven by hate, ignorance and outright stupidity, and it ought not be tolerated. Adding sexual orientation to the list of reasons why we shouldn’t inflict harm on our fellow humans – well, duh.

But the truth is that I’ve never been quite able to square my feelings on hate crime legislation generally. Mainly, my approach to crime and punishment doesn’t much care whether you stomped a guy to death because he was gay (or black or Muslim or a Republican or whatever). It cares that you stomped a guy to death and the appropriate penalty for that ought to be such that motive is irrelevant. Call me a law and order progressive if you like – my views on how we should deal with certain categories of criminal (rapists, child molesters, etc.) are way past “conservative” and deep into “Byzantine.” I believe the solutions to our society’s crime problems require strong education and economic development programs to remove the underlying causes of so much crime, and in the meantime, I believe that carrot should be accompanied by a very, very large stick.

Why should a thug who murders me, a straight white guy, for what’s in my wallet do less time than if he murdered another man for kissing his boyfriend in public? From where I sit, both crimes deserve the max. Period. If that’s life, then lock ’em up. If it’s death, go crank up ol’ Sparky.

I’m not willing to go to war over this one because, in truth, I absolutely understand the desire to send a message – a strong one – to those who think what happened to Matthew Shepard was okay. I positively, 100% get that and couldn’t be more on the train if I were wearing the conductor’s cap. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that sees the very conversation as proof that we’re not acting strongly enough against crime generally. If we need more punishment for this, and if we believe all people should be equal under the law, isn’t the de facto implication that we aren’t doing enough about that?

And doesn’t this amount to a noble, well-intentioned ghettoization of certain classes of people?

Yeah, I’m opening myself up to it here, and feel free to convince me that I shouldn’t be feeling the ambivalence that I am. Like I say, this isn’t one that has me outraged, exactly. But I feel like so long as we have laws that draw these kinds of distinctions we’re slapping bandaids on sucking chest wounds.

Matthew Shepard is dead, and his killers deserved the worst we could do to them. In my mind, they deserve the worst whether their motives were robbery or homophobia.

When all is said and done, doesn’t this law really say that there are some reasons for cold-blooded murder that aren’t as bad as others?

:xposted Lullaby Pit:

8 replies »

  1. Interesting, Sam, and I think completely valid on the merits. I do remember reading somewhere (sorry, the brainlink is broken, and Google isn’t helping) that there are situations in which there is insufficient evidence to convict for the primary crime but sufficient to convict for a hate crime (on a lesser charge? that brainlink, again). That, as I remember, was one of the rationales for hate crime legislation. Can anyone help me out here with better data?

  2. This really is a fascinating case. I have never seen so many strong willed people so conflicted. I agree with your assessment. I just commented on another blog that I find the concept of a War on Hate Crimes about as useful as a War on Drugs or the War on Terror. I have a real problem with legislation being used to make a statement or motive itself being a crime.

  3. I right there with you on the sucking chest wounds. There are some serious serious issues with how we deal with crime. One of those various serious issues is that often times crimes that fall under “hate crimes” fall by the wayside, go unprosectued or are ignored. Call me pessimistic, but your argument about length of sentencing requires that it actually gets to sentencing. The murder of a transgender woman of color seems much less likely to have as much resources devoted to it as your hypothetical robbery-murder. My understanding is that the legislation also provides federal assistance for investigation if local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so.

    And they have been unwilling.

    NYC, this summer — a transgender woman is beaten with a pipe in the bathroom of a McDonald’s (near the empire state building, iirc) by a store manager while store employees circled and cheered ‘kill the fag.’ When police arrive, they refuse to take her statement, arrest her for assault, and deny her her diabetes medication. (http://brownfemipower.com/?p=499)

    There are rapes and assaults that are reported but never investigated. The rape and assault (and eventual murder) of Brandon Teena comes to mind. There was a case somewhere in the SW sometime in the fall (I can’t find the e-mail at the moment) where a disabled trans-man was raped, beaten and left for dead and little to no attempt was made to find his attacker.

    So, yes, big, enormous, pulsing, oozing wound that effects so many people, not just the ones the legislation seeks to add. But while we try to heal that wound permanently, shouldn’t we at least do something to keep it from festering? I’m right with you on the sentencing and your argument for treating victims fairly. But, what’s happening now is that victims aren’t being accorded the same treatment and handling – whether its an issue of race, gender identity, orientation, religion… or something that’s not protected, like class. And if this legislation can at least partially work toward justice and equitable treatment of victims of hate violence, then it has my support.

    That said, I’m far more interested in the trans-inclusive ENDA that’s been introduced, as on the day-to-day, I’m more worried about being fired than being beaten, and the proposed addition of gender identity and expression to Massachusetts’ non-discrimination laws that deal with housing, employment, etc. etc, since not being kicked out of my apartment would be nice, too.

  4. I think the most important part of this law to me is that it gives the feds the authority to step in and investigate violent crimes in cases where the local force won’t. My municipality is one of the good ones; our officers receive special training and are held to the town’s non-discrimination policy. However, a national WASP-supremacist group is headquartered about half an hour down the road, and that group actively recruits in my local area. I am not confident that if I am attacked outside my town of residence that I will receive fair treatment because I am a lesbian. If this bill gets signed (or the promised veto is overridden), should local cops stymie an investigation, there will be some recourse, whereas presently there is none.

    I share some of your reservations about enforcing harsher penalties for hate crimes, but I see it as an extension of consideration of motivation (or lack thereof) in sentencing. Stricter sentencing for criminals who violently lash out at people for being different helps to correct some of the historical and continuing inequalities in penalties. While I am usually not a believer in using harsher penalties (life in prison vs. death, or 2 vs. 5 years) to send a message to society at large about the acceptability of certain conduct, a fine and comunity service for murder gives a very different message to potentially violent bigots than life without parole.

  5. Oh, and my local House representative voted against this bill. Just sayin’.

    Also, to echo Jeremie I am keenly intersted in the ENDA. That has a chance of passing before my state legislature even reads theirs.

  6. Sam,
    I don’t think it’s the same crime to beat up a white person (for example) and to beat up a black person because you hate black people. The latter isn’t just the crime itself: it’s also a threat. It says, “All black people, you may be beaten just for the color of your skin.” And the fear that that causes in a community that already has reason to be afraid (if it’s not private citizens it’s cops) is why this deserves harsher penalties. It also mandates federal investigation and aid, which helps the criminals be caught, etc.