During the slowly unwinding prosecutorial wake of Fat Tuesday, Seattle police in late March asked prosecutors to consider invoking hate crime statutes in charging a black teen, Khalid Adams, 17, with Mardi Gras assaults. Police say they are continuing to investigate whether Adams and other black youth were motivated by racial hatred against whites in their alleged attacks.
Crimes motivated by hatred against whole classes of people are truly abhorrent. But exactly how abhorrent you think they are often depends a lot on how much fear you feel or how much empathy you have with the targeted class. One of the reasons the Mardi Gras crimes were so explosive in Seattle is that it seemed to confirm the fears many whites have that nonwhites despise them.
The range of opinions regarding the appropriateness of hate crime laws has generally followed a conservative/liberal spectrum, with liberals favoring them and conservatives opposing them. Such statutes were originally conceived as protecting oppressed communities—gays, Asian Americans, Jews, and blacks especially—that are the targets of widespread bigotry in many communities. They are the natural outgrowth of liberal outfits like the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which have championed legal remedies to stop overt white bigotry. People for the American Way, a notoriously liberal group that allegedly champions free speech, is launching an 18-state campaign supporting new hate crime legislation.
Conservatives, predictably, have seen these penalties as "special protections." Now, with a young black man possibly charged for his seething rage against whites, the shoe is on the other foot, and it's conservatives who tend to be cheering. But regardless of who the victims and advocates are, hate crime statutes are a bad, even a dangerous, idea.
Adding charges or increasing the penalty for a particular incident because of the beliefs of the criminal is a very, very slippery slope and subjective as hell. People who wanted hate crime penalties slapped on Matthew Shepard's attackers or on the Aryan Nations might be more sympathetic toward Adams, in the belief that bigotry only counts when it's inflicted by a member of a more powerful group. Countless crimes also committed because of hatred against whole classes of people don't attract these additional penalties. How many men commit rape or other acts of violence against women because they hate women? How many poor people hate the rich? Who hates the homeless? How do you select who is a "worthy" class to protect?
Hate crime laws depend upon the nasty area of psychoanalyzing the perpetrator, a notoriously inexact science often beloved by liberals. Does a Khalid Adams, who reportedly was honest with police about his dislikes, carry more culpability than someone with the good sense to keep her or his mouth shut? Or do we rely on a court psychologist, two words that ought to strike terror into anyone's heart?
You cannot teach someone to like, or even tolerate, another class of people—or teach them to target someone else for their violent impulses—by threatening extra prison time. It doesn't work. Subsequently, hate crime statutes are essentially feel-good laws, enabling a certain kind of vindictive self-righteousness among those of us who champion tolerance (an interesting word, indicating that we need not change any of the institutions that oppress classes of people—it's enough that we don't personally mount burning crosses on their lawns). In essence, we "tolerate" everyone except those whose thoughts we find abhorrent.
Hate crime laws usually translate into a charge of "malicious harassment" in Washington state. It's been used about a dozen times per year in King County since 1995, generally translating into about three to nine months in prison. For someone like Adams, whose alleged crime was part of a mob scene provoking widespread public anger and fear, the price may well be higher.
There's no guarantee that hate crime prosecution will remain infrequent or that the targeted "incorrect thoughts" will remain static. That's the slippery slope: Even when we already have laws on the books to deal with the given crime, the state is demanding additional penalties depending upon what people think, and it's the state that's defining which thoughts are suitably bad. Conservatives and liberals alike should shudder at the prospect.
Fascinating article you may have missed—Seattle's dailies certainly did—in the L.A. Times' business section April 4, on a Senate hearing exploring the music industry's online efforts. In it, our own Maria Cantwell is cited as follows:
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she was encouraged by the licensing deal reached Monday by AOL Time Warner, EMI, and Bertelsmann, which announced a joint venture called MusicNet that will offer digital music downloads by the end of the year. "There's been a lot of progress here," Cantwell said. . . .
The L.A. Times, alas, failed to note the reason for Cantwell's buoyancy. The deal presented to the Senate, featuring some of the world's biggest music companies, uses streaming technology from RealNetworks—Cantwell's former company, in which she still has extensive stock. RealNetworks' recent NASDAQ plunge left Cantwell so strapped that a fund-raising letter was sent out on her behalf begging supporters to bail her out of her financial crisis.
In the L.A. Times article, we also learn that the presiding senator, Orrin Hatch, also discussed, with Cantwell watching, possible tax breaks to help these huge entertainment conglomerates "speed development" of the deal; and that Hatch is "a part-time songwriter." (Mother of God.)
Cantwell's predecessor, Slade Gorton, worked for us (assuming we were a Fortune 500 company). Who, exactly, is Maria Cantwell working for?