Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spreading the ignorance

-- by Dave

Sometimes I'm not so sure how well this whole blogosphere thing is going to work out. According to Carnegie-Mellon, the nine most influential blogs in the country are right-wing entities -- though you have to wonder about any list of this kind that somehow manages to omit DailyKos and HuffingtonPost.

And then there's the No. 2 blog on the list, belonging to Don Surber. The negative value of blogs really hits you over the head when you go exploring here. For instance: Discussing the horrendous Megan Williams case, Surber decided to offer his thoughts on hate-crime laws. It's an exercise in wanton ignorance, and it does nothing but help spread stupidity.

See, for instance, his thesis about hate-crimes laws:
Of course, hate crimes legislation is poppycock. All crimes of violence are hate crimes.

Of course, this is itself utter poppycock. To begin with, there are many, many crimes of violence that occur not because of hatred but because of a reckless disregard for human life, which is not the same thing at all. People often kill not out of hatred but out of carelessness and venality.

But even more important, most people who write about hate-crimes laws are aware that the term is something of a misnomer; what we call "hate crimes" are in fact known in the law as "bias crimes" -- crimes committed with a motivation of bias (racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, or gender) against the perceived class of the victim.

And to suggest that all violent crimes are bias crimes is, well, just plain ignorant. Crimes are committed out of a plenitude of motivations, and ethnic/religious/sexual biases constitute only a narrow band of them. Evidently, Surber is unaware of this.

He goes on to display even more ignorance:
Crime is the last segregated business in America. Most black crime victims are victims of blacks. White criminals generally pick white victims. If you are killed by a person of another color, does that make you more dead?

It seems that Surber labors under what's becoming an increasingly common misconception about how hate-crime laws work. They're not about interracial crime or, more generally, inter-identity crime. They're about, once again, bias crimes.

Suggesting that interracial crimes are innately hate crimes is one of the ways the race-baiting right muddies the waters about race, and it obviously works, because people like Surber subscribe to it.

A hate crime hasn't occurred simply when a person of one race commits a crime against someone of another. This, of course, occurs all the time.

It's only a hate crime when the victim is intentionally selected specifically because of their ethnic, religious, or sexual identity.

So, for the sake of intellectual honesty, let's try recasting Surber's question in terms of how the laws actually work:
If you are killed by a person of another color because he was biased against your color, does that make you more dead?

Of course it doesn't. What it does do, however, is erect a threat within the community against all other persons of that color.

Hate crimes are message crimes: They are intended to harm not just the immediate victim, but all people of that same class within the community. Their message is also irrevocable: they are "get out of town, nigger/Jew/queer" crimes.

That's why bias-crime laws are about imposing stiffer sentences on their perpetrators: they cause more real harm to the community. This principle -- greater harm brings stiffer punishment -- is a basic element of criminal law.

Moreover, the question becomes somewhat moot, as I've explained previously, at the upper end of the criminal spectrum, and may well in this case too:
Even though most of the nation's attention to hate crimes comes in notorious murder cases like the killings of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard, hate crime laws themselves have relatively little impact on such cases. They are sentence-enhancement laws, and there isn't much enhancement you can get at the upper end (though prosecutors are known to use the laws to leverage stiffer sentences both in plea bargaining and in regular courtroom convictions). But that's relatively irrelevant to the value of the laws themselves; annually, only 2-3 percent of all bias crimes reported to the FBI are murder.

Conversely, as we've seen in recent weeks, bias crimes remain at the heart of our nation's great divides, particularly because of the failure of the law-enforcement apparatus to appropriately enforce the laws against them. This mounting failure contributes to the divide by enhancing the already deep mistrust.

Now, that does raise the question of whether and how West Virginia law should be applied in the Williams case (which was the point of all this discussion). I recommend Raging Red's thorough analysis.

Surber's solution? Just build more prisons:
What we can do is recognize that there are awful people of all colors who deserve to go to prison. Not for rehabilitation, but to keep them from preying on others.

The best way to prevent another torture case is to build another prison so that we do not have to let violent criminals out due to a lack of space. W.Va. should raise the food tax back to 6 percent if necessary.

Well, that's a terrific ipso facto solution. It presumes that most crimes involve people with criminal records -- even though, for instance, a substantial portion of bias crimes are committed by people with no or only minor criminal records. The idea, of course, is to find ways of creating an environment in which the crimes don't occur to begin with.

Now, it's true that bias-crime laws -- reflecting the crimes themselves -- are admittedly in large part message laws. That isn't a bad thing in itself. As Frederick Lawrence observes in Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes and American Law, the general purpose of punishment itself is to send a message. He cites a report of the British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment:
Punishment is the way in which society expresses its denunciation of wrong doing: and in order to maintain respect for law, it is essential that punishmen inflicted for grave crimes should adequately reflect the revulsion felt by the great majority of citizens for them ... The ultimate justification for any punishment is, not that it is a deterrent, but that it is the emphatic denunciation by the community of the crime.

Interestingly enough however, in the case of bias crimes, sending the message in fact is a form of deterrent as well.

Think about the message sent by bias-crime laws: the community stands up to condemn the bullies who seek to oppress and deny ordinary American freedoms to whole minority groups within the community. That's not a bad message to send.

Particularly not in a situation where, as in the case of most bias-crime perpetrators, studies have shown that they believe they are acting on the unspoken wishes and values of their communities. When they violently proclaim, "Get out of town," it's important for the town to stand up and say: "They don't speak for us."

Bias-crime laws send the message NO: violence, threats, and intimidation with an eye toward elimination is not what the community wants. It starkly undermines the rationale that perpetrators like to erect for themselves when committing these acts. And it undermines the groupthink that often is in play in these crimes. That's why it's in the community's vital interest to send that message.

Unfortunately, it will never happen as long as ignorance like Surber's spreads.


Here are some collected posts, chronologically arranged, on bias crimes, for anyone who wants to better understand the laws and the crimes:

Hate crimes: A response

Who needs hate-crimes laws?

Hate crimes, democracy, and freedom

Should we repeal hate-crimes laws?

Failing in the present

Boys will be boys

Falling down on hate crimes

Hate crimes: Muddying the waters

Hate crimes: Progress at last


Hate crimes and the law

Still bashing Matthew Shepard

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