Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hate crimes and the law

A recent piece by Laura McPhee in Nuvo illustrates one of the real reasons to pass them: hate groups have proven propensity to exploit their absence, as we are seeing currently in Indiana, one of only four states not to have a bias-crime statute on the books.

The piece details a couple of hate crimes -- one involving a vicious assault on an African American man by some young white punks, the other an even more brutal murder on a gay man -- that occurred in the past year in different locales in Indiana. More importantly, it explores the ugly brew of right-wing disinformation that has kept the legislation from passing:
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia currently have what is known as Hate Crimes Legislation. While the laws vary in language and scope, most HCL defines hate-motivated acts based on race, religion and ethnicity bias as criminal. The majority of states also include hate-motivated acts based on sexual orientation (32) and gender (28).

“Hate crimes do more than threaten the safety and welfare of all citizens,” concluded the New York state Legislature, upon the passage of the state’s Hate Crime Legislation in 2000. “They inflict on victims incalculable physical and emotional damage and tear at the very fabric of free society.”

As recently as Feb. 22, 2007, Hate Crimes Legislation has been defeated in the Indiana General Assembly.

HB 1459 would have amended Indiana law to allow judges to impose stiffer sentences to those found guilty of committing crimes “knowingly or intentionally … because of the victim’s color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or sex,” just as it currently does to allow stiffer sentences to those who commit crimes against police officers, pregnant women, children and other designated victims.

The measure died on the House floor due to lack of support and overwhelming opposition.

While Indiana is one of only four states in America to not have Hate Crimes Legislation, in accordance with the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 law enforcement agencies are required to report incidents to the FBI in which a committed crime was motivated by bias against race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

... For nearly 20 years, Indiana lawmakers have declined to pass Hate Crimes Legislation in Indiana due to pressure by the powerful Evangelical lobbyists and the fundamentalists they represent who oppose it.

"It is wrong for the government to mandate special rights for the homosexual lifestyle -- a lifestyle that many consider immoral," contends Evangelical lobbyist Eric Miller, founder of Advance America, whose opposition to Hate Crimes Legislation is that it "represents an attempt to give special protection to homosexuals and cross-dressers."

"Victory in Indiana!" proclaimed a February 2007 e-mail bulletin from Monica Boyer of The Indiana Voice for the Family, "Hate Crimes Legislation [is] Dead!" after HB 1459 died in the Indiana General Assembly.

"This was a clear case of people making their voices heard, and some legislators standing up for what was right," said Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana.

Like Boyer and Miller, Clark contends that by defeating Hate Crimes Legislation in Indiana, "The good guys won on this issue, and a bad bill was averted."

Once again, for the record: There is nothing in either the Indiana bill -- or for that matter in the federal legislation that recently passed the House -- that would give "special rights" to homosexuals or cross-dressers. The laws as written clearly would protect all citizens equally from bias crimes, including anti-gay bias that targets non-gays. Moreover, the law isn't about "protecting" any group or another -- it's strictly about stiffening the sentences for people who are committing crimes, which are not a form of protected speech in any case.

It's also worth noting, perhaps, that even to the extent that the laws are intended to create some kind of protections for various victim groups from terroristic criminal acts, there is nothing "special" about the rights that might arise from these. It is, in fact, well within the scope of the law to punish such acts for the full scope of harm they cause. We are, after all, simply talking about protecting basic human decency and the rights of equal opportunity and association -- which are the rights that are under assault when hate crimes occur.

You'll also note that there has been a real lack of media attention to these two crimes:
While Evangelical groups and conservative lawmakers from Indiana continue to defend their opposition to Hate Crimes Legislation, local and national human rights groups and bloggers are beginning to take notice.

And while much of this focus questions why Indiana continues to not enact Hate Crimes Legislation, others are also beginning to question why so few Indiana media outlets are reporting the beating of Dexter Lewis or the murder of Aaron Hall.

On June 6, Bloomington Alternative Editor Steven Higgs published an editorial asking why The Indianapolis Star has yet to cover Hall's murder.

"The case should have been big news," Higgs contends. "Yet The Star left the Hall murder to the Jackson County media, the never-to-be-trusted Indianapolis and Louisville television stations and bloggers ..."

We untrustworthy bloggers have also been pointing out something that Leonard Pitts remarked upon regarding the supposed media bias involved in black-on-white crimes: namely, the reality is that actual bias crimes against minorities are grossly underreported, especially in contrast to gruesome black crimes in which no bias motive is detectable.

More to the point, there is a reason that skinheads and hate-group organizers of various stripes despise bias-crime laws: They send precisely the kind of message they don't want to hear -- namely, that both their communities and society at large acgtively condemn crimes undertaken against victims chosen simply for their identities.

As I've explained previously, a significant aspect of the mindset of bias-crimes perpetrators is the belief that not only does society silently condone their actions, but that it is a kind of heroic undertaking on behalf of their communities.

Silence, for the thugs who like to beat and murder people just because they belong to an "out" group, equals tacit approval.

That's what Indiana continues to tell its young haters, and the results are coming home to roost.

Likewise, in continuing to attack attempts at passing a federal bias-crime statute, national Republicans beholden to powerful elements of the religious right are doing the same strange kabuki dance, with the extremist right as an appreciative partner.

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