Friday, August 7, 2009

Do We Need Hate Crimes Legislation?

I came across an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post this week about hate crimes statutes. That got me wondering, do we need them, and are they fair?

A case can be made that hate crimes are indeed unfair since they punish thought and speech. We’re punishing someone for being racist or homophobic. But it’s constitutional to think racist or homophobic thoughts. The action of killing someone is what’s illegal.

Proponents of hate crime laws argue that they serve as a deterrent against certain crimes. Let’s understand their logic. Hate crimes don’t just affect one victim; they affect an entire community. A white man who kills a black person out of hate is on some level attacking the whole black community. A hate crime charge could deter acts of violence against a whole community, which would be a good thing.

But is a hate crime bill really needed to deter? Already, you could get the death penalty for killing someone, whatever his race. Will the possibility of getting charged with a hate crime in addition to capital murder really make someone think harder about killing that minority?

The one useful function of punishment hate crimes might serve is retribution. Society is expressing its moral outrage that someone would kill based on racism. But then, one might ask, is that crime really worse than when say, a husband kills his wife?

There is also an interesting question of which groups should receive hate crime protection. Should it go to historically oppressed minority groups only? It’s perfectly possible for a black person to kill a white person out of hatred. Should white men be a protected group? Come to think of it, most of the time, someone kills another person out of some kind of dislike or hatred.

What do you think? Take my poll. Are hate crime laws justified?

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