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A Dangerous Question: Are Hate Crime Laws Necessary?

By Lavender June 5, 2008

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Since the shooting death early this year of Lawrence King, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the need for stronger or national hate crime laws. However, is this really the best route to go? Now, I’m not saying that hate crimes laws aren’t necessary—nor am I saying they are. But I think it’s good occasionally to ask “dangerous questions” before rushing to judgment. I’ve talked to a number of people about their opinion on this topic, both face-to-face and online. Here are some of the responses I’ve gotten.

(Note: Unless I received permission from the people I quote to use their names, I assigned them pseudonyms.)

Colleen Rothe—Washington State

I feel about hate crime legislation much as I feel about defining how civil rights are applied.

In recent weeks, a black minister (famed for marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr.) has been protesting events held to bring attention to GLBT rights.

(Note: Rothe is referring to Reverend Ken Hutcherson’s stance against the April 25 Day Of Silence at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, Washington.)

Civil rights are human rights. Crimes against any human, regardless of their lifestyle, are crimes—period.

More legislation is not what is needed. More proper enforcement is needed. I guess I would prefer that we focus energies that might be spent on pushing through hate crime laws into securing civil unions.


Sean Solosan—Ohio

I think hate crimes aren’t treated quite as seriously by police as most other crimes would be. There are many police out there who are antigay, and it’s been obvious (and reported) in the news numerous times. I don’t really see a perfect solution for this until all gay/bi/trans-haters are off the force, but that will never happen.

If the word “faggot” were spray-painted onto a gay man’s brick wall on the front of his home, it’d more than likely be treated as vandalism, and not a hate crime. It’s my opinion that police try to avoid putting a hate crime “label” on a scenario whenever possible, because it’s a lot of red tape for them to work through. I can understand that it’s a lot of paperwork that they’d more than likely wouldn’t have to normally deal with, but until things like this start getting taken seriously, the problem is just going to be ignored.


“Olivia Glendive”—Iowa

I’m generally not in favor of hate crime legislation, at least as I’ve heard it described. People should be punished for their actions, not their feelings. Repugnant as it may be, hate is not and should not be against the law. Passing laws against hate will not make it go away.

Doing things that are intended to terrorize other people should be illegal, even if the act itself is something that would otherwise be fairly trivial under the law (burning a cross on someone’s lawn, for instance). It should be possible to draft a law that says this. However, the proposals I’ve seen for hate crime legislation seem to focus on making lists of eligible victims, rather than trying to define the illegal behavior.

Bruce Schneier—Minnesota (Author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security In An Uncertain World)

What hate crime laws do is provide for extra penalties for a particularly heinous crime. They’re a signal, to potential criminals and to society at large, that certain behavior will not be tolerated. Like equal rights laws, in a better world, they would not be required, but in our world, they are.


“Alice Jennings”—Minnesota

I detest the idea of hate crimes, because I detest the idea of “thought crimes.” I think current laws should be more than enough to cover any circumstance I can imagine. Almost all premeditated murders are committed because of hate, so what’s the difference why someone is hated to the point that they were murdered? The point is that they were murdered, and the murderer should pay full penalty for their crime.

There are some circumstances in which the behavior of a victim might actually mitigate against full punishment, when the behavior itself might otherwise be thought of as a hate crime. The fact that someone may be behaving inappropriately towards someone who later murders them doesn’t mitigate much in regards to what the punishment should be—it just mitigates how sorry I actually feel towards the victim. The murderer should still be just as liable.


“William Notle”—New Zealand

Hmm, tricky stuff. I don’t know how New Zealand and the United States compare on these. I’ve always been a bit worried around the concept of “hate crimes,” as I was around the whole “home invasion” thing—I thought that we already had adequate laws to deal with them, if they were properly enforced.

“Tom Favreau”—Kansas

Nobody is put in jail for what they think. They are in jail for the acts they have committed. What’s the difference between first-degree murder and second-degree murder? First-degree murder requires a showing of intent, but nobody seems to complain that first-degree murder is a thought crime.

I won’t go into the enforcement part, because that’s a mixed bag. Proving someone violated a hate crime law is pretty tough to do. And any law on the books is only effective if there are people out there willing to enforce it.


“Morris”—Iowa

I like to think that the purpose behind hate crime legislation was to protect victims of hate crimes from being treated unfairly by the police/judicial systems that might be either personally or legally biased against the victims. It also shows recognition of hate crimes occurring. We struggle for legal equality as gay people, and are often rebuffed.

I was severely beaten during high school for being gay. I nearly lost the sight in one eye, and had to have most of my lower lip stitched back on. It was an atrocious crime, but does it warrant any preferential status to someone else who wasn’t gay? In my humble opinion, it doesn’t.


Dallas Drake and Joe Shulka—Minneapolis (Cofounders of the Center For Homicide Research)

Dallas: It’s important to have hate crime laws, but the real issue is: OK, we’ve got them, but now what? We need to go the next step—we still need to deal with the root causes. And two of them are internalized homophobia and fear of feminization for men.

Joe: Laws, in general, do not change people’s behavior. We have capital punishment in half a dozen states, but those states don’t have a decrease in homicides. People committing crimes are not thinking about the consequences of their actions. One of the things that I think is unfortunate about the community is looking toward having hate crime laws—particularly on the national level—as the end game. It’s a means to an end. We’ve really put a lot of eggs in that basket, thinking that once we have them, we’re going to be OK, and there’s so much more that needs to be done.

So, what’s your opinion regarding hate crime legislation? Let me know what you think. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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