I remember when the first hate-crimes laws were proposed. I had a queasy feeling about it, even though I'm a member of one of the groups of people thought to benefit from such laws.
Now, as you can imagine, mine isn't a popular view with my gay and lesbian peers.
It seemed to me that attaching stiffer penalties to crimes based on motivation of the perpetrator created an uncomfortable dynamic, whereby we defined and assigned value to individuals based on their "otherness". My sister was bartending at the time--and it seemed horribly wrong that should she be assaulted and murdered in an alley some night upon leaving work, it could be prosecuted differently than if I were assaulted and murdered in the same alley, upon leaving a gay bar. It also seemed both rash and wrong to make the motive--the thought--part of the crime itself.
Hate crime legislation doesn't seem to have made much of a dent, at least not here from the front lines. We're trapped in a painful tension of valuing ourselves based on diversity--embracing our "otherness"--and being separated from the greater part of our own culture and society by that same difference. I deeply fear that every time we create some official means of separation, we only deepen that dichotomy.
It's still a pretty regular occurrence to hear of someone getting beat up coming out of the wrong bar. There's apparently been a new rash of cross-burnings in the midwest, lately, too.
Recently, someone vandalized a local African American couple's house, here in the Seattle suburbs. They spray-painted racial slurs, swastikas, and obscenities all over the exterior.
It turned out to be a couple of local teenagers. They confessed. You've got to wonder just where they learn this stuff, don't you. The local news team interviewed people. The neighbors all professed their shock and dismay. I'm sure most of them were sincere.
Unfortunately, there seem to be some unforseen consequences stemming from an attempt to prosecute ideology. In the hysteria following the 9-11 attack, we passed a bunch of terrorism and Homeland Security legislation--a natural progression of trying to sort crime by the thoughts and motives behind it. Now we've come to a place where nine United States Senators and the White House all think it's just fine to torture people--as long as we think they're terrorists. It's just fine to hold even American Citizens indefinitely and without charge--as long as we think they're terrorists.
We've long made distinctions that benefit someone who commits a crime, with mitigating circumstances, self-defense, and other grounds for leniency. Is that really intrinsically different than finding grounds for even stiffer penalties? I actually think it is. Recent emphasis and movements for victim's rights aside, I applaud compassion built into our laws for both the perpetrator and the victims, whenever possible. I remain distinctly uncomfortable by attempting to impose greater penalties by peering into the motives of the defendant.