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Lance Morrow: I'm angry because I hate hate-crime legislation

June 16, 2000
Web posted at: 10:46 AM EDT (1446 GMT)

( -- Is there such a thing as a "hate crime?"

Of course there is. There are many motives for crimes. The human heart -- to say nothing of the criminal mind -- can be a dark and complicated place, subject to violent weather.

But the law likes to work in clarity and well-lighted, advertent consciousness. For purposes of law, which is the operative word? "Hate"? Or "crime"? Which of them is the crime? The thought? Or the deed? Is it not enough for the crime to be a crime? Does the crime become more heinous because hate comes along as a vicious junior partner?

Suppose that a murder is done without hatred. Suppose, for example, that Matthew Shepard's killers had been motivated merely to rob him, in a dispassionate sort of way -- strictly business? Would that dispassion ("Sorry, Matt, but we can't have a witness...") earn the killers 10 or 15 years off their sentence -- time off for good behavior? In any case, Matthew Shepard's killers have been condemned to death. Would the people of Wyoming, or the gay rights movement, feel any better if the men had been convicted of a hate crimes violation?

If the hate thought ("I hate Jews/ blacks/ gay people/ Catholics/ old people/ Walloons/ Bosnian Muslims/ Italians/ Latinos/ Other") flashed for an instant in the perpetrator's brain, like summer lightning, but no deed was done, then would the mere thought -- tagging along as, so to speak, cheerleader in the vivid, if Orwellian, phrase "hate crime" -- be worthy, in itself, of 10 to 15 years in jail? If not, then why, under hate crimes law, is this matter of the perpetrator's state of mind taken into consideration?

If a crime -- Auschwitz, say, or the entire Holocaust -- is a crime, surely it is an insult to the principle of law, and to the universality of the horror, to trivialize the deed by stipulating that it was a "hate crime." Further, suppose the people who did the daily work of Auschwitz really were "just following orders"? Was Adolf Eichmann executed in Jerusalem for the state of mind in which he pursued the Final Solution? No doubt quite a few Nazis could honestly claim that they were not anti-Semitic. Who would care to blaspheme by saying, "It's not so much that they killed 6 million Jews, but that they were so hateful about it"? In a decent, intelligent society, deed overrides motive; motive alone is not a crime.

But the president is adamant in supporting a federal hate crimes law, and his wife, running for the U.S. Senate, is just as passionately unthinking on the subject, and so is Al Gore. And now, in New York, the Republican establishment (including Gov. George Pataki) has caved in to this corruption of legal process, embracing a hate crimes bill for the admittedly sound political reason that -- in a world governed by simple-minded sound bite -- to come out against a hate crime law is to seem guilty of (anti-gay, anti-minority) hate oneself. The retreat of principle before political correctness and fatuous self-congratulation may be irreversible in America. Soft fascism advances under the banner of Feelings.

W. H. Auden wrote a splendid poem called "1 September 1939," which, in the original version, he ended with the line, "We must love another, or die." He expunged the line in later editions, judging, rightly, that it rang false, sentimental. I do not think it is the business of the law to tell us, "We must love one another, or else." Nor is it the business of law to forbid us to hate one another.

If the law is engaged in diagnosing the perpetrator's state of mind, then we may need an infinitely more complex system of laws than what we have now. If we assign, say, 12 years' imprisonment for a crime motivated by hate, then we must presumably work out a calculus of penalties for crimes committed for reasons of jealousy, or of lust, or of compassion (the Kevorkian assist, e.g.). I would like to see an entire new branch of law developed to deal out sentences for crimes committed for reasons of sheer stupidity.

Over last weekend, after a Puerto Rican Day parade, roving gangs of young men ran wild in New York's Central Park, molesting and sexually assaulting dozens of women. I have had long discussions with friends about the gangs' motives. Lust? Hatred of women? Warrior machismo? Drunkenness? A dynamic form of mob stupidity? To parse the motives of the gangs assumes that they were acting on anything as coherent as Motive. Who cares? What matters is not why they did it, but that they did it. How can such a basic foundation of law be so blithely and witlessly subverted?

And what exactly are the motives of those pushing hate crimes laws? These activists and their political allies need to spend a year or so refreshing themselves in study of the meanings of freedom, and of the principles of law.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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