The brutal and horrific murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, the killing spree of Benjamin Smith and the shooting of popular radio host Allan Berg raised both fear and anger in equal measure across the land. A close scrutiny of the murders mentioned above reveals that they were either committed by a member of a certain minority group or the victims belonged to a member of a certain minority group. Matthew Shepard was brutally executed because of his sexual alignment, James Byrd was an African-American murdered by members of a white supremacy group by tying him on to a pickup truck and dragging him over asphalt for some miles (Perry et al.). Benjamin Smith was a member of white supremacy group who randomly shot non-whites.
What Is a Hate Crime?
Hate crime or ethno violence is an assault targeting members of the marginalized or stigmatized community. What defines a hate crime according to FBI are unlawful offense against a person or possessions motivated in whole or in part by an lawbreakers bias against a race, a religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or ethnic group. Hate in itself is not a crime; it is the actions triggered by bias held against a group that makes the crime. Hate crimes are not just committed by bigots randomly; rather it is deeply entrenched in the cultural and structural contexts through which groups and communities interact (Compass.port.ac.uk). Hate crimes are more likely to manifest under environments riddled with exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness and cultural imperialism.
A clear understanding of hate crimes forms a basis on how best to approach and solve them. An understanding of the motives that drives a serial killer to take randomly away lives will help address the root cause of the animosity. Those who commit such crimes are not necessarily psychotic, according to a California based psychologist; but rather they show high aggression tendencies. A closer look reveals that they might have had troubled childhood where violence was the norm in their families (FBI). Such an understanding can help in transforming perceptions people have towards others from an early age so that humanity is respected and no discrimination is meted out against anyone.
There has been raging debate on whether it is appropriate to label certain crimes as hate crimes. After all, crime is a crime, so why should there be specific categorizations of certain crimes? Based on this debate, there have been those who side with the side that crimes should just be taken as crimes; that there should be no labeling of crimes either as hate or any other form whatsoever. On the flip side, there are those proponents who deem it fit to have certain crimes specifically labeled as hate crimes.
Advantages of Labeling Hate Crimes
What does labeling a crime as a hate crime do? Labeling certain crimes as hate would go a long way in coming up with ways of protecting people or groups that are targeted based on how they look like, their religious affiliations, sexual orientations or just the way they are perceived. The killing of Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd triggered the ratification of the Shepard/Byrd Act, a law that is aimed at curbing bias-based violence. Numerous such murders had been committed before, but there was no specific law that best addressed them. Such murders were all treated just like any other criminal offense, and the perpetrators might not have received a fair judgment. The Shepard Act clearly stipulates the parameters under which a crime meets the criterion in order for a case to be labeled as a hate crime and should, therefore, be convicted under the laws of the Act. The stiff penalties as stipulated in Act work as a deterrent for committing bias-based violence (Google Books).
Prior to the deaths of Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, the state of Wyoming hate crimes laws had not included homosexuality as a class for bias based violence. The state of Texas did not even have hate crime laws in the first place. Some societies have long held prejudices against such practices as homosexuality. Crimes committed against homosexuals under such environments would not be taken seriously as it is against their norms, albeit unlawful. In such circumstances, mean-spirited bigots might take advantage of the peoples soft spot to meet out violence against some minority groups whom they deem such groups should be eliminated. Some communities might, for instance, not condemn an individual who inflicts harm on a homosexual simply because they are opposed to homosexuality. Some juries might even relax their verdict in a case they are opposed to homosexuality and the case before them regards violence meted out on a homosexual victim (Bernhardt). Had the federal laws clearly labeled such offenses as hate crimes, and then the perpetrators would have appropriate charges handed out against them. Fairness would also be upheld.
Several groups, notably the Liberty Counsel, have voiced their concern that hate speech laws will restrict their freedom of speech and religion. Their fear is basically driven by the European precedent where one can be prosecuted for hate speech against race, gender or religion. Hate speech legislation cannot, however, be used to prosecute hate speech crimes. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and is treated as any other kind of speech. There have been conspiracies that clergies that do not speak favorably regarding gay and lesbians will be a target under hate crime laws. This, however, is not true as the Shepard Act does not redefine the crime of conspiracy. Eleven anti-gay people were prosecuted in Philadelphia for disrupting a gay even that was going on. They blocked the streets and defied police orders when ordered to leave. The arrests were made not because they were against homosexuality, as it is widely perceived, but because they were disruptive. Illegal activities should not, therefore, be suddenly deemed to be legal just because the criminals involved tend to be conservative, and the targets happen to be homosexuals. Hate speech in itself is not a crime; it is the act committed that is a crime. One can make a joke about a certain religion, but his freedom of speech will not be curtailed as the First Amendment protects his rights. He would, however, be liable for prosecution if he/he meets out violence on someone because of their religion (Perry).
Crimes Should Not Be Labeled: All Crimes Are Crimes
A criminal who inflicts injuries or harm to a person based on their gender, race, sexual orientation or even physical disability is in no doubt liable to prosecution under hate crimes. In most instances, these criminals brag about the reasons why they commit these violent acts. They usually brag about their actions, rightfully exercising their first amendment right to freedom of speech. There is, therefore, no special reason as to why such crimes should be labeled differently, yet the perpetrators themselves have made it obvious in their confessions. One of Alan Bergs Nazi affiliated killers, for instance, bragged that Berg went down so initially it was like an individual ‘pulling the rug right under him.’ He witnessed the shooting of a victim of bias based violence, Alan Berg (Head).
Labeling a crime elevates its punishment for the same degree of crime. In addition to punishing the crime committed, hate crime also punishes the motivation behind the crime. This postures the query of whether it is right to punish an offender's motives when he/she commits a crime that is already prescribed as illegal under the law, so should hate crimes be punished more severely? Is it justifiable to punish the criminals' thought processes behind a certain crime? And how accurately can this thought process be determined anyway? The effectiveness of the deterrent measures to be realized by labeling certain crimes cannot be ascertained. How sure are we that a criminal who is prepared to commit an act will think twice before committing the offense if he/she knows hate crimes are punished more severely? There is, therefore, no point in labeling crimes, as all crimes are just that: crimes (Perry et al.).In my opinion, categorization of certain crimes as hate is essential as their cases are unique. Bias based violence have been meted out against minority groups from time immemorial. It was only when their brutality was beyond bounds, such as the tying and dragging of James Byrd over asphalt for some miles, that authorities saw the importance of labeling them differently from other crimes. Authorities saw the need for coming up with all-inclusive laws that were broadened to cover a wider range of crimes beyond the ones already existing in hate crime Acts of different states. Now that it has been made a federal law, hopefully, bias based crimes will be curbed. The seclusion of hate crimes in their own category elevates this kind of crime into a new limelight. This is all for good reasons. It is totally absurd to stigmatize someone based on their gender or ethnicity or gender or race. No one chose to be born a certain race, neither did we choose our ethnicity or gender. And worst of all, who would wish to have any disability? All these are sacred; we have no control over them. Therefore, anyone inflicting harm or injury to another based on these issues should be prosecuted under a different category that specifically addresses all aspects of bias based violence.
Bernhardt, William. Hate Crime. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.
Compass.port.ac.uk,. "The Case Against Hate Crime Laws". N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
FBI,. "Hate Crimes". N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
Google Books. "Hate Crimes". N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
Google Books. "In The Name Of Hate". N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
Head, Tom. "Does Hate Crime Legislation Threaten Free Speech?". About.com News & Issues. N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
Perry, Barbara et al. Hate Crimes. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2009. Print.
Perry, Barbara. In The Name Of Hate. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
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