Monday, May 02, 2005

Missed motives, hoaxes, and hate

As we've all been discovering lately, sometimes appearances are misleading when it comes to criminal motivations -- especially when it comes to high-profile acts like hate crimes and their related acts of domestic terrorism.

The problem is that in the resulting confusion, it's not uncommon for acts of genuine racial hatred to get glossed over or ignored.

The most prominent national case in which we saw such confusion involved the killings of Judge Lefkow's husband and mother in Chicago. White supremacists, rather logically -- in light of the threats they had directed Lefkow's way -- were considered the chief suspects, and I and many others spent quite a bit of time contemplating the consequences of that.

However, it turned out to have been committed by a mentally ill man with a beef against the judge. The story went away. What went little noticed, as a result, was the deeply disturbing threats that emanated from other white supremacists over the course of the affair.

There have been even more egregious cases, though, of conclusion-jumping from the right side of the blogosphere. The most notable was the murder of a Coptic Christian family in New Jersey, which the right-wing bloggers, led by Michelle Malkin, hastened to dub it "a hate crime" committed by evil Muslims, because the family had been prominent in anti-Islamist activist circles -- though there was no history of them having been threatened by Muslims. While speculation might be understandable, there certainly was no reason to conclude it was a hate crime.

After several weeks and several thousand words spilled on the subject, it all came to a halt with a brief correction ("I was wrong") because the murders actually were committed in the course of a home-invasion robbery committed by the upstairs neighbor. There was, unsurprisingly, a paucity of reflection on the broad swath of accusation she and others had hurled during the course of the case at various targets, including CAIR and the left in general. Auguste at MalkinWatch has all the details.

Far more problematic, however, are cases in which people for various motives fakes hate crimes. Not only are the motives for the crimes misjudged, but like the boy who cried "fascist," these do real damage to efforts to tackle the matter.

Another recent incident in Illinois involved the situation at a small Christian college where minority students were moved off campus after someone wrote letters to another student threatening to kill all the school's blacks. Then it turned out to be a hoax concocted by one of the school's students to convince her parents the school was not safe for minorities.

Here in western Washington, we had the case in which a black family was apparently the target of a vandalization hate crime, spurring a remarkable response of broad community support. But then it turned out to have been committed by the family's teenage son as a ruse to cover up a burglary.

Of course, there will always be opportunists who attach themselves parasitically to any kind of worthy cause, including civil rights and anti-hate movements. They are especially noxious because they provide those movements' critics with such ready ammunition.

Still, what was truly noteworthy about the incident, as Robert Jamieson pointed out, was the heartening community reaction to the crime. But you have to wonder how many people who showed up to support the victimized family wound up feeling burned. You have to wonder how many times these fake hate crimes will happen before people start shying away from recognizing the real hate crimes, and their enormity, when they do occur.

I'm talking about incidents like the one in Bremerton last week, when a couple of white supremacists who apparently have terrorized their neighborhood for years got out of hand and wound up in jail:
Abdul Woodruff, 21, says a pair of racist neighbors were drunk and blowing stuff up in their front yard late Monday night when he finally had enough.

"I'm getting very angry. I'm enraged," he said.

Woodruff said the two threatened to lynch and kill him while screaming "white power" before setting fire to their own driveway with lacquer thinner.

Police say the suspects threatened to shoot officers when they arrived on the scene and that the pair have terrorized non-white neighbors on the street for years, even blaring sirens and lights from an ambulance on their property in the middle of the night.

"One lady reported to us that she won't even let her daughter, who's a teenager, walk down the street because she has dark skin and she would be taken as a minority," said Sgt. Kevin Crane, Bremerton Police.

"You can't come out and cut the grass, you got me worried what they're going to say, what they're going to do, if they're going to do something to your family," said Woodruff.

The two suspects now face felony hate crime charges and more.

There were further details on the incident in the local paper, The Sun:
Detective Sgt. Kevin Crane said a neighbor had approached a home asking that the music be turned down. Bremerton police officers had come to the area because of a noise complaint, but were out of sight when a 34-year-old white man allegedly began yelling death threats and racial slurs at the neighbor who had asked him to lower the volume.

Crane said the neighbor, who is black, didn't do anything to provoke the threats.

When police approached the suspect's home, a 21-year-old man alerted the older man and both retreated inside.

Eventually, they came out, police said, and poured flammable lacquer on their yard, driveway and fence and ignited the fluid, creating 5-foot flames.

The older man, who police believe was drunk, then allegedly began waving a flaming wooden oar in the air.

Cases like this are pretty clear-cut, involving multiple witnesses, including the police. But so far, the response both in the community and the media has been terribly muted.

It is, as I've argued many times, a mistake on the part of community leaders to try to brush over incidents like these. Hate crimes, because of their terroristic nature, victimize not just the immediate victims, but in cases like this especially, much broader swaths of the community -- not just an entire neighborhood, but any black person living in Bremerton.

More to the point, typical hate-crime perpetrators like to believe they are secretly carrying out the wishes of their respective communities. When the community glosses over their actions, they see that as tacit approval -- and a green light to escalate their behavior.

This is especially the case when law enforcement fails to take the crimes seriously and prosecute them as hate crimes. Such slaps on the wrist are often interpreted as pats on the back.

The most noteworthy example of this involved an arson case in Maryland that many initially believed was the work of eco-terrorists, notably Glenn Reynolds and, yep, Michelle Malkin, who also dismissed suggestions that race might have been a factor.

But then, when police police arrested a group of young white men in the case, it turned out not to be a case of eco-terror, but rather race-motivated arsons, from all appearances. Of course, rather than concede that these may have been hate crimes, Malkin in her "correction" instead speculated at length on the perps' various personal motivations for the arsons.

That was the men's legal strategy as well, with one defendant claiming the arsons were just a "notoriety ploy" for the street-racing club. The Washington Times was quick to describe the men as mere "street racers."

Unfortunately, it was a line that prosecutors appear to have bought into as well. In the stories describing the guilty plea entered by one of the defendants last week, there was this:
Parady admitted that during the early morning hours of Dec. 6, he drove a vehicle from house to house to light the fires.

He acknowledged the accuracy of a statement of facts submitted in court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna C. Sanger. The document said Parady "selected or aided and abetted the selection of the Hunters Brooke development as the object of the arsons because he knew or perceived that many of the purchasers of the houses in that development were African-American."

Neither Parady nor any of the other defendants has been charged with a hate crime, and federal prosecutors have said there was more than one motive.

There are immediate problems with what prosecutors are saying. The presence of other motives does not obviate or mitigate the bias motive, especially when it is as prominent a factor as it is in this case. And it is quite strikingly clear from the prosecutors' own statement that the targets were intentionally selected because of race.

"Intentional selection" due to race is the classic determiner of what is a hate crime and what isn't. Usually, a prosecutor's bedrock question is: Would this crime have occurred if not because of the (perceived) victims' race? It's clear that, in this case, against these particular homes, it wouldn't have.

Late in the story, the politicians weighed in:
County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), who in January became the county's first black commissioner, said that she hoped Parady's guilty plea would send a "resounding message" that the county "will not tolerate heinous hate crimes."

Um, well, that would only work if you actually prosectuted them as hate crimes. In reality, by limiting the scope of the charges, the county sent precisely the opposite message -- one that, unforunately, encourages the like-minded to engage in more of the same and worse.

Which is what, in a milieu that sows nothing but confusion about the nature of hate crimes, we can probably expect for the foreseeable future.

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