Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.
Ruben Navarrette says hate crimes should be punished severely because they're aimed at society as a whole.
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- To think there are some people who still argue that the law shouldn't categorize some offenses as hate crimes and allow for enhanced criminal penalties.
They claim that all sorts of crimes are motivated by hate, and to separate some from others elevates some victims over others and amounts to the state policing thoughts and feelings.
They also fear that politicians and institutions are simply yielding to political correctness, liberal pressure groups and identity politics.
My view is that hate crimes deserve special punishment because they don't just victimize whoever they're aimed at; they're intended to send a message, and they terrorize the whole society.
That debate might have been settled Wednesday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where hate was on display. A shooting left one man dead: Stephen Tyrone Johns, a six-year veteran of the museum's security staff who, according to museum director Sara Bloomfield, "died heroically in the line of duty." The alleged assailant is James von Brunn, a Holocaust denier who created an anti-Semitic Web site.
The 88-year-old often challenged the authenticity of "The Diary of Anne Frank," the book about a teenage girl living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. So it was probably no coincidence that the shooting occurred on the same day the museum had scheduled a play based on a fictional meeting between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, a martyr of the civil rights movement.
Von Brunn also had longstanding ties to white supremacist groups, according to authorities. These outfits flourish in bad times because they give underperformers something really valuable: convenient scapegoats for their troubles, failures and shortcomings.
Without that, these misfits might actually have to look in the mirror and take responsibility for their own lives. Although these groups are properly categorized as "hate groups" by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, what also fuels them are things like fear and insecurity.
Nowadays, their targets are often Latinos, especially immigrants. But, before that and for much of the history of this country, the targets have been African-Americans. And, for much of the history of the world, they have been Jews.
And that prejudice hasn't gone away. Consider what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former Chicago, Illinois, pastor whose relationship with Barack Obama became an issue in the presidential election, recently told the Virginia newspaper, the Daily Press, when asked if he speaks to Obama. "Them Jews aren't going to let him talk to me," Wright said in an apparent reference to some of Obama's aides. Wright later said he misspoke and meant to refer to "Zionists."
A researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center has said her group had a thick file on von Brunn going back 20 years and that he had become a "hardcore neo-Nazi." Von Brunn blamed a six-year prison term he once served -- for the attempted kidnapping of Federal Reserve board members in 1981 -- on "a Negro jury," "Jew/Negro attorneys" and "a Jew judge," according to his Web site.
In documents read at trial, von Brunn wrote that his goal was to "deport all Jews and blacks from the white nations." Also, on his Web site, there's a message lamenting how "bit by bit government institutions and Congressmen fell into JEW hands -- then U.S. diplomacy, businesses, resources and manpower came under Jew control."
You get the picture. It's no mystery what this guy is, to anyone but himself. His court-appointed lawyer from the Federal Reserve case said von Brunn, a veteran, considers himself a patriot. He's no such thing. That concept is best defined as love for one's country, not hatred for everyone else.
It's also obvious that, while Americans are always in a hurry to close our most unpleasant chapters, anti-Semitism is alive and well in parts of our society. Like its equally vile cousins -- racism and nativism -- it thrives because many people are threatened by change and eager to cast others as villains.
Meanwhile, President Obama said the museum shooting "reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms."
So true, Mr. President. Here's to vigilance.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.