A Cohen Connivance On Hate Crime

small_god-hates-fagsRichard Cohen tells us the following from the WaPo (here)…

James von Brunn, who is alleged to have opened fire and killed a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, is apparently a consummate bigot. His former wife said that his hatred of blacks and Jews “ate him alive like a cancer,” so it might seem appropriate that in addition to having been indicted last week for murder and gun-law violations, he was also charged with hate crimes. At age 89, he proves that you are never too old to hate.

He also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: “A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected.” No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes?

The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That’s nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what’s being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it’s not as if the crime is not being punished. The added “late hit” of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy.

In von Brunn’s case, the hate-crime counts are an obscenity. To suggest that the effects of this attack were felt only by the Jewish or the black communities — and not, for instance, by your average Washington tourist — ghettoizes both its real and purported victims. It’s a consequence that von Brunn himself might applaud.

I will give Cohen points here for not claiming a preference here due to the fact that he is Jewish. All the same, I think his attack here on hate-crime laws is unduly harsh.

As noted here…

The Federal Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R. 1913) passed the U.S. House on April 29, 2009 by a vote of 249 to 175. The bill expands 1969 federal hate crime laws to include sexual orientation, gender expression or identity and disability. Previous hate crime laws gave the Justice Department authority to prosecute crimes motivated only by race, color, national origin and religion.

Race-based hate crimes leading up to the civil rights movement prompted federal legislation to help deter and prevent such acts. However, these law enforcement “definitions” of what makes a crime a hate crime have not been expanded since 1968. The need for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime legislation has become more apparent given the continual increase in LGBT-biased violence.

Including sexual orientation and gender expression into federal hate crime legislation would allow the Justice Department to assist with the investigation of state and local hate based offenses. Federal assistance alleviates overburdened and under funded local law enforcement officials, better enabling them to solve crimes based on sexual orientation and gender expression violence.

So there is a practical reason for expanding the existing hate-crime law from 1969 to include sexual orientation and gender expression, particularly because, as noted here by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate…

There are two main objections to these hate-crime statutes. The broad one is that, in general, a “hate crime” punishes mere speech or state of mind and is thus unconstitutional. This argument sweeps too broadly. No hate-crimes legislation targets constitutionally protected speech alone; that’s why Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh still roam free. The basis of hate-crime legislation is the enhancement of penalties for conduct that is already criminal. Those Philadelphia protesters (11 evangelical ministers at a gay-pride festival) were arrested for refusing to obey police orders to relocate, not for the act of preaching itself. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this principle in 1993 with its unanimous decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell. In Mitchell, the defendant was convicted of aggravated battery—a crime carrying a maximum sentence of two years. But the jury found he had intentionally selected his victim based on race, so his sentence was increased to seven years under Wisconsin’s provision for hate crimes. The Supreme Court found that scheme constitutional, holding that “physical assault is not by any stretch of the imagination expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.”

Lithwick also tells us that states were loathe to include gender-based discrimination in their statutes because of pressure from clergy who “target religious leaders preaching against homosexuality from their pulpits” (to which I reply, “And the problem is?”).

And as Think Progress tells us here…

The Laramie, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office had to furlough five deputies in order to cover the more than $150,000 that it cost to investigate Matthew Shepard’s murder. Yet when Jasper, Texas investigated the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., it received $284,000 in federal funds because Byrd’s murder was motivated by race, rather than sexual orientation.

And I think it’s also worth noting that a horrific act which “started the ball rolling” towards the original hate bill from 1969 occurred 45 years ago yesterday (or, at least, the result of that act); as the BBC tells us here, the bodies of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white Jewish Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizer and former social worker also from New York, were found near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Of course, Cohen had no problem trying to blame a certain African-American preacher for allegedly impugning the memory of the three here, even though that charge was just a bit of a reach – he can go ahead and blame Louis Farrakhan if he wants, though.

Update: And as long as we’re talking about hate crime (here)…

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