Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Capitulating on hate crimes

It's only relegated to a news brief, but the Los Angeles Times recently had a story about a hate crime in San Diego County:
The two 15-year-olds were arrested this week on suspicion of battery causing serious injury, making violent threats and civil rights violations for allegedly participating in the Aug. 20 attack on the 17-year-old victim as he left football practice at El Capitan High School in Lakeside, said Det. Ellen Vest.

A third juvenile has been informed that he will be taken into custody, Vest said. The suspects identified themselves as white supremacists, threatened to burn crosses in their yards and gave a Nazi salute, Vest said. School staff members intervened in the attack, she said.

This incident reflects, as I've discussed previously a couple of times, the ominous signs of a resurgence of white supremacist beliefs among young people, particularly in places like California and the Midwest, where rapid demographic shifts are occurring in places that were previously largely homogeneous white communities. We've also been seeing a number of hate crimes in the Pacific Northwest being perpetrated by angry young white men who seem increasingly drawn to right-wing extremism.

Why is this happening, even in historically "progressive" places like California and the Puget Sound?

Well, it's hard to establish a causal connection for anything as formative as this current trend just yet. But it's worth noting that's happening in a setting in which two concurrent trends related to hate groups and their associated criminal activity are arising:

-- Increasing right-wing hostility to immigrants, particularly Latinos.

-- An increasing liberal laxness -- almost an apologetic stance -- regarding hate crimes.

I've discussed the former trend several times, as well as the way it's manifesting itself in mainstream conservatism.

But what I've let go unremarked until now is the way liberals and centrists have increasingly abandoned their previously firm stance on hate crimes.

This is a shift that is in many ways a product of an aggressive campaign by the religious right to undermine support for the laws against hate crimes, and in that regard bears a remarkable resemblance to the way the mainstream press was intimidated by the right's "liberal media bias" meme into becoming a de facto conservative organ.

What you'll find, increasingly, is liberals and centrists with a strong civil-libertarian orientation are quietly conceding the religious right's main charge against hate-crime laws: namely, the myth that they create "thought crimes".

As I've explained in detail here previously -- as well as, obviously, in my book Death on the Fourth of July -- this is one of the more persistent false myths about the laws, and a careful examination of the laws themselves, their enforcement, and the court rulings surrounding them reveals this to be the case.

Bias-crime laws no more create "thought crimes" than do any other laws consigning greater punishments for crimes committed under certain species of mens rea (or the mental state of the perpetrator), including anti-terrorism laws. Differences in intent and motive can make the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Enhanced punishments are especially warranted when crimes are believed to cause greater harm -- and hate crimes quantifiably do so. These are standard features of criminal law, and no more create "thought crimes" than do laws providing the death penalty for first-degree murder.

More to the point (and as I also argue at length in Death on the Fourth of July), hate-crimes laws are not about taking away anyone's freedoms -- rather, they are about ensuring freedoms for millions of Americans.

As I point out in the book, hate crimes have the fully intended effect of driving away and deterring the presence of any kind of hated minority -- racial, religious, or sexual. They are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people, and they are message crimes: "Keep out."

Rural dwellers' dread of the dark colors of the inner city is something of a cliche, one based nonetheless on reality. What is less observed, however, is the common dread held by many minorities for America's more rural spaces. Black people fear stepping foot in Idaho because of the presence of the Aryan Nations in the state's Panhandle. Gays and lesbians view driving through places like Wyoming and Montana with a palpable anxiety.

If you get out a map of the country and put yourself in the shoes of a person of color or another sexual persuasion, and start looking at the places you would feel safe visiting, you'll suddenly realize that this can be a very small country indeed for people who are not white heterosexuals. This is what Yale hate-crimes expert Donald Green means when he says that hate crimes annually create a "massive dead-weight loss of freedom" for Americans.

This point, however, seems not to occur to many supposed lovers of freedom on the civil-libertarian left, who now almost reflexively defer to the religious right's attacks on hate-crimes laws as creating "thought crimes." They are similarly vulnerable to the related contention that the laws are merely a product of "identity politics" -- a charge that, as I've already noted, is largely groundless, and tends to reveal more about the speaker than it does the subject.

Rather than think the issue through, a number of liberals often privately sacrifice support for hate-crime laws, at times bending over backward trying to "understand" what motivates hate-crime perpetrators, to the point that "understanding" becomes a kind of excuse-making or, at worst, exoneration.

Probably the most egregious example of this is Elinor Langor's A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America, which set out to attempt an in-depth examination of the Mulugeta Seraw case, the November 1988 beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant by a gang of white skinheads in Portland. What Langer produced instead was an over-earnest attempt at "fairness" on behalf of the white supremacists: the book, as Daniel Levitas (and others) have observed, Langer paints an extraordinarily sympathetic portrait of Tom Metzger, the leader of White Aryan Resistance, as well as the young thugs who murdered Seraw -- while attacking the Portland community for expressing well-deserved outrage over the crime.

The Seraw case was especially noteworthy, of course, because the criminal convictions of the three young white supremacists and their intimate connections to WAR became the basis for a civil lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center that wound up putting WAR out of business. She essentially winds up indicting the SPLC for having more skilled lawyers than Metzger.

This is known as keeping such an open mind that your brain falls out. It's true that it's important not to dehumanize your subjects, and never to forget that even the most brazen thugs and noxious racists have a human side. Certainly, I wound up having more than a small share of sympathy for some of my subjects in both of my books -- the right-wing extremists (especially some of the elderly Montana Freemen) of In God's Country and the young hate criminals who are the chief subject of Death on the Fourth of July.

But it's equally important not to lose perspective, either: These are still brazen thugs and noxious racists, and they create victims, too. Had Langer devoted as much time to "understanding" the pain and misery inflicted by those three young skinheads on the family of Mulugeta Seraw, as well as the terror they inflicted on Portland minorities, as she does to the suffering of the skinheads' families and Tom Metzger, she might have crafted a study worth reading.

The worst part of Langer's book, though, is her easy dismissal of the reaction of the Portland community to the crimes, which she likens to a "witch hunt," and dismissing the organized demonstrations in response to the Seraw attack (as well as other instances of skinhead violence in Portland) as being, in essence, mere knee-jerk examples of reflexive liberal political correctness.

Well, it's true that community responses against emanations of racial hate -- particularly hate crimes -- often take on the trappings of Liberal Chic and its attendant self-righteousness. But it's important to understand that in the case of hate crimes, these kinds of demonstrations play an essential role in curbing the crimes. They have real practical value, which is why you'll see them attract support not merely from civil-rights groups and liberal churches, but also from law enforcement and city officials.

The vast majority of hate-crime perpetrators, as I explain in Death on the Fourth of July, believe fully that they are committing these crimes with the unspoken approval of their respective community -- that they are merely acting on its real desires. This (combined with a high incidence of narcissistic/antisocial personality disorders) lends itself to another common trait of hate criminals: they rarely believe they've done anything wrong. And it's important to note that these perps consistently held these views well before they ever acted upon them.

Thus, high-profile and widely sanctioned expressions of community disapproval of these crimes play an essential role in discouraging further such acts. They inform any would-be hate criminals that, contrary to their preconceived notions, the community at large clearly does not approve of these kinds of acts, and rather than being community heroes, they will be pariahs.

Unfortunately, the increasing willingness of the civil-libertarian left to capitulate to the right-wing assault on bias-crime laws and its charge that they create "thought crimes" has resulted in a serious softening of community positions when the crimes do occur.

Emil Guillermo had a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle recently pointing to a case where an egregious hate crime -- one surprisingly similar in nature to the one that occurred in Ocean Shores on July 4, 2000 -- was given the kid-glove treatment:
Is S.F. soft on hate crime?

As Guillermo points out, the most glaring instance of mishandling of the case lies with a local judge:
Just last month, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy found the defendant, a juvenile, to have committed two felony hate crimes against Asian Americans.

But the judge gives him a break this week.

He won't be sentenced as planned Aug. 25.

Instead, sentencing will be pushed back to September or later. And the proceedings, which have been open to the public by legislative exception due to the nature of the crimes, may be closed.

Why the hesitation now?

Perhaps the judge is trying to show a little sympathy for the juvenile. But, then, why deny the public the satisfaction of seeing the City's legal apparatus take the issue of hate crimes seriously?

But it also extends to both local police investigators and local prosecutors, who failed to tackle the many other perpetrators who participated in the crime. Indeed, it's clear that police completely botched the investigation, at least from the standpoint of what steps law-enforcement professionals recommend for their fellow officers in identifying a hate crime and handling the crime scene:
In June 2003, [the defendant] was part of a mob of 15 to 20 white teens and young adults from the Sunset District who thought it would be fun to smack around five Asian American teenagers out for a bite to eat.

Jeff Woo, Ken Zeng, Paul Wong, Sung Noh and Tim Wen were caught in a whirlwind of hate.

Wong testified that the defendant approached him, said something to him and immediately punched him in the face, said Edwin Prather, the pro bono attorney for the victims. "All the boys clearly saw him that night," said Prather. "They testified that he not only hit more than one person but also that he used racial slurs in doing so."

The identification was key to why the defendant stands alone. All the members of his mob participated. But apparently the prosecution found sufficient evidence to bring only one person to trial.

Prather said a delay by police investigators resulted in spoiled and lost evidence.

But to net only one person out of as many as 20?

If my abacus is correct, that's a 5 percent arrest rate.

That, as it happens, is fairly typical for most hate crimes. It's rare -- indeed, almost unheard of -- for the multiple perps of most hate crimes to actually face the full measure of the law. Indeed, it's quite common for hate-crime charges to go utterly uninvestigated. The SPLC, for instance, estimates that roughly 30,000 hate crimes go unreported and uninvestigated annually in America (compared to the 8-9,000 that are reported).

You'd think that would be a problem for liberals. But they have been strangely silent about the issue of hate crimes in the past few years.

One of the results of this is that Democrats have virtually conceded to Republicans the fact that they will, once again, bury a true federal hate-crimes law -- the first ever to be passed -- by allowing the Republican House leadership to repeat their behavior in 2002 and 2000 by squelching the bill's passage despite overwhelming support for it both in the House and the Senate.

Though you won't have read about this anywhere in the press -- nor even through key liberal advocacy organizations -- earlier this summer, the Senate passed, 65-33, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, and attached it to the annual Defense Authorization Act. But in doing so, this meant that instead of the bill going directly to the House for a vote -- where it enjoys overwhelming support -- it was subjected to the tender mercies of Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert in House conference committee. As Barney Frank subsequently commented, this meant the bill was doomed, since he had already been informed the bill would not make it out of conference.

Obviously, there was no way that, in an election year, the GOP poobahs were going to allow this bill go before George W. Bush, where he would almost certainly be forced to veto it under overwhelming pressure from his religious-right base.

Right where you'd think Democrats would want them, right. But Democrats have, so far, allowed Republicans to get away with this entirely.

This is a bit of history repeating itself, but in reverse. Republican advocates for the federal anti-lynching law known as the Dyer Bill succeeded, in 1922, in having it pass the House by overwhelming margins, and it faced certain passage in the Senate as well. But a coterie of Southern Democrats raised a lengthy filibuster, and in the end, Republicans capitulated, in no small part due to privately weak support for the legislation from key GOP senators, notably Henry Cabot Lodge. (Similar attempts to pass anti-lynching laws met identical fates in 1927 and 1934.)

Nowadays, of course, it is the Democrats who are supposed to be championing civil rights and fair play and the Republicans who are thwarting the popular will. But so far, Democrats have simply let their opponents slide off the hook, rather like those 19 or so uncaught hate criminals.

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