"Hate" Is Worse Than The Crime Itself?

Steven M. Warshawsky
The Associated Press is reporting  about a horrific crime that occurred recently in West Virginia.  According to the press account, a 23-year-old black woman was abducted by six white people -- including two mothers and their adult children -- who held the woman captive in their home, and repeatedly beat, stabbed, and sexually assaulted her.  This went on for one week or more, until the woman was discovered and rescued by law enforcement.

This is the kind of nightmarish crime that one often sees portrayed in movies, but rarely in real life.  It raises all sorts of questions, including whether the perpetrators had prior criminal records, whether there were any missed opportunities to prevent or discover the crime earlier, what the circumstances were of the victim's abduction and whether it could have been avoided, and so on.

The focus of the AP story was not on the crime itself, however, but on allegations (made by the victim's mother) that the attackers used the "n-word" every time they assaulted the victim.  Thus, the crime was not merely a heinous, brutal victimization of a young woman -- it was a "hate crime."  According to the story, the FBI "is looking into possible civil rights violations."  As if being beaten, stabbed, and raped is not a "civil rights violation."

The article clearly implies that the use of racial slurs was the most serious transgression committed by the perpetrators.  As the lede states: 
"A woman who authorities said was sexually abused, beaten and stabbed while held captive for at least a week was repeatedly called a racial slur during the attacks, the victim's mother said." 
It is the allegation that racial slurs were uttered by the white perpetrators, not the crime itself, that is supposed to trigger an outraged response from readers. 

The notion of a "hate crime" -- which, in essence, seeks to punish impure thoughts, rather than unjust deeds -- has been criticized on the grounds that such laws are unnecessary because the criminal conduct itself is punishable, that they treat crime victims unequally depending on whether the victims enjoy "protected" or "non-protected" status, and that they infringe on individual freedom and impose a form of thought-control on citizens.

I think these criticisms are valid, but miss a more important point:  Hate crime laws, by elevating the perceived seriousness of crimes when allegations of bias or bigotry are involved, have the perverse result of diminishing the perceived seriousness of crimes when no such allegations are involved. 

In this case, the AP story about this terrible crime clearly implies that had no racial slurs been uttered, the crime itself would not have been as wrong.  Instead, it probably would have been described as simply a "tragic" and "senseless" act.  This makes no sense, logically or morally.  Whatever added psychological insult the use of racial slurs added to the victim's pain and suffering surely was as nothing compared to the physical assaults she suffered.  Yet we're asked to imagine otherwise.   

As a result of hate crime legislation, and stories such as this one, we may become more sensitized to the use of mean-spirited language -- but at the price, I believe, of becoming less sensitized to the actual physical cruelty and barbarism that some human beings inflict on others.  This is not a trade-off that a society that believes in the dignity and freedom of every individual should make.

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky
The Associated Press is reporting  about a horrific crime that occurred recently in West Virginia.  According to the press account, a 23-year-old black woman was abducted by six white people -- including two mothers and their adult children -- who held the woman captive in their home, and repeatedly beat, stabbed, and sexually assaulted her.  This went on for one week or more, until the woman was discovered and rescued by law enforcement.

This is the kind of nightmarish crime that one often sees portrayed in movies, but rarely in real life.  It raises all sorts of questions, including whether the perpetrators had prior criminal records, whether there were any missed opportunities to prevent or discover the crime earlier, what the circumstances were of the victim's abduction and whether it could have been avoided, and so on.

The focus of the AP story was not on the crime itself, however, but on allegations (made by the victim's mother) that the attackers used the "n-word" every time they assaulted the victim.  Thus, the crime was not merely a heinous, brutal victimization of a young woman -- it was a "hate crime."  According to the story, the FBI "is looking into possible civil rights violations."  As if being beaten, stabbed, and raped is not a "civil rights violation."

The article clearly implies that the use of racial slurs was the most serious transgression committed by the perpetrators.  As the lede states: 
"A woman who authorities said was sexually abused, beaten and stabbed while held captive for at least a week was repeatedly called a racial slur during the attacks, the victim's mother said." 
It is the allegation that racial slurs were uttered by the white perpetrators, not the crime itself, that is supposed to trigger an outraged response from readers. 

The notion of a "hate crime" -- which, in essence, seeks to punish impure thoughts, rather than unjust deeds -- has been criticized on the grounds that such laws are unnecessary because the criminal conduct itself is punishable, that they treat crime victims unequally depending on whether the victims enjoy "protected" or "non-protected" status, and that they infringe on individual freedom and impose a form of thought-control on citizens.

I think these criticisms are valid, but miss a more important point:  Hate crime laws, by elevating the perceived seriousness of crimes when allegations of bias or bigotry are involved, have the perverse result of diminishing the perceived seriousness of crimes when no such allegations are involved. 

In this case, the AP story about this terrible crime clearly implies that had no racial slurs been uttered, the crime itself would not have been as wrong.  Instead, it probably would have been described as simply a "tragic" and "senseless" act.  This makes no sense, logically or morally.  Whatever added psychological insult the use of racial slurs added to the victim's pain and suffering surely was as nothing compared to the physical assaults she suffered.  Yet we're asked to imagine otherwise.   

As a result of hate crime legislation, and stories such as this one, we may become more sensitized to the use of mean-spirited language -- but at the price, I believe, of becoming less sensitized to the actual physical cruelty and barbarism that some human beings inflict on others.  This is not a trade-off that a society that believes in the dignity and freedom of every individual should make.

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky