Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hate crimes and the victim

I was deeply saddened to read this account of the death of David Ritcheson, the Latino teenager from Houston who was brutally assaulted last year by a couple of white-supremacist punks:
David Ritcheson's wounds finally seemed to be healing. After the Mexican-American teen was beaten nearly to death and sexually assaulted in 2006 by two young men yelling “white power” slogans, he struggled to overcome immeasurable physical and emotional trauma. But there he was in April, testifying at a congressional hearing in favor of hate-crimes legislation, publicly recounting the horror he had endured. Dressed in a smart suit, the cherubic high-school senior from suburban Houston spoke in a clear, strong voice. “I appear before you as a survivor of one of the most despicable, shocking and heinous acts of hate violence this country has seen in decades,” Ritcheson said. Yet in the aftermath, “as each day passed, I became more and more aware of everything I had to live for. I am glad to tell you today that my best days still lay ahead of me.”

Yet his wounds evidently continued to torment him. On Sunday, Ritcheson, 18, died after leaping from the upper deck of a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico. A trip he’d planned as a summer escape with some buddies ended instead in tragedy. His parents, who flew to Mexico to meet up with the ship, returned to Texas with Ritcheson’s body on Thursday. Now the FBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding his death. Among the unconfirmed reports that have already surfaced: that passengers and crew members tried to talk Ritcheson down and set out mattresses to catch his fall; that he was seen drinking in the ship’s dance club Saturday night, and that one girl told her mother before Ritcheson’s death that she’d overheard a young man mention to his friends that he wanted to jump overboard. Many questions remain unanswered, says the family’s attorney, Carlos Leon, but “ultimately, whatever David did that morning was absolutely related to what had happened to him and the pain he was in.”

What's especially sad about this case is that there was so little anyone could do; the scars inflicted by hate crimes are uniquely deep and cruel, and rarely do they heal readily, even with the finest counseling and best family support. A study of bias crimes against gays and lesbians noted this:
Victims of hate crimes undergo higher levels of psychological distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anger, than victims of other crimes, said Greg Herek, PhD, research psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who spoke on the impact of anti-gay/lesbian victimization at the briefing. Herek, whose research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, attended the White House conference as APA’s representative.

Hate crimes can cause victims to view the world and people in it as malevolent and experience a reduced sense of control, Herek said. According to his research, hate crime victims needed as much as five years to overcome the emotional distress of the incident compared with victims of nonbias crimes, who experienced a drop in crime-related psychological problems within two years of the crime.

Undoubtedly David Ritcheson's wounds were deepened by the grotesque humiliation he suffered at the hands of the thugs: they violated him with a plastic pole and scarred him by pouring bleach into and over him. But that kind of extreme violence is also part of the nature of hate crimes, as I explained in Chapter 5 of Death on the Fourth of July:
While data and studies have given us a pretty clear picture of the typical hate-crime offender, no one has ever compiled a psychological profile of the typical hate-crime victim. This is partly because these victims are notoriously difficult to study; most of them are so traumatized by the crimes that they often refuse to participate in such work.

Mostly, however, it's because hate crimes can happen to literally anyone and can occur at any time, in no small part because of the random elements in the perpetrators' victim-selection process -- that is, most victims are complete strangers to the offender, chosen only because of their perceived membership in the target group. Nearly any race, religion or sexual orientation can inspire bias-motivated violence, and indeed one need not even actually belong to the target group to fall victim to a hate crime; witness the not-insubstantial number of heterosexual victims of gay-bashing.

That said, it is clear that in twenty-first-century America, minorities are far more likely to be victims of hate crimes than anyone else. In 2001, for example, 10,898 of the 12,020 victims of hate crimes reported to the FBI were various kinds of minorities. A pattern of victimization risk also emerges from the data: race is the most common motivator, with African Americans the most vulnerable targets; Jews and gay men are the second- and third-most likely targets, respectively.

Perhaps just as significant, the data reveals that these are more likely to be violent crimes. Criminal-justice expert Barbara Perry points to FBI statistics that reveal wide disparities in the levels of violence between bias crimes and "normal" street crimes. "It is apparent that hate crime . . . is much more likely to involve physical threat and harm to individuals, rather than property," she writes:

Consequently, such victims are also more likely to be at the receiving end of excessively brutal violence. To the extent that hate crime perpetrators are motivated by fear, hatred, mistrust, or resentment of victims, for example, they are more likely to engage in extreme violence -- violence which is beyond that necessary to subdue the victim.

... What we also know about the victims of bias crime is that they are substantially harmed well over and above what befalls victims of the simpler versions of the same crimes, perpetrated with ordinary motives (what is known as the underlying or "parallel" crime behind these acts, such as simple assault, vandalism or threatening); for instance, some studies have found that bias-crime victims often experience post-trauma psychological stress syndromes similar to those experienced by rape victims, because the sense of violation can be so profound. The result is a commingling of shame, fear and rage.

"Short-term, the impact is the acute, intense paranoia of 'Do I go out of my house? Do I have deliveries brought in, or can I trust that person, either?'" says Susan Xenarios, director of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center Rape Intervention Program/Crime Victims Assessment Project in Long Island, New York. "The other extreme is pure rage. Or sometimes you get rage and fear together, and that's hard to stabilize." And over time, she adds, "if you don't deal with the crisis reactions, they become worse."

"There's something different about being attacked simply for who you are -- for your basic identity as a person, as opposed to being selected for what you have or what you are doing," says Joan Weiss, executive director of the Justice Research and Statistics Association and former executive director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, who studied bias crimes and their victims extensively between 1981 and 1992. "This is not to minimize the harm that befalls people in any kind of violent crime. But when your identity is assaulted as well, it creates another level of trauma. And we see this manifest itself with bias-crime victims in all kinds of ways: severe depression, a heightened level of persistent anxiety, extreme withdrawal, a profound sense of isolation."

Indeed, one of Weiss' studies -- a survey of violence in the workplace -- found that bias-crime victims were significantly more likely to experience psychophysiological symptoms, some of them debilitating, than people who had experienced non-bias-related crimes. And although white victims of bias crimes were just as likely as non-whites to experience increased trauma, non-whites were more likely to adopt certain defensive behavioral postures as a result, including watching their children more closely, making themselves "less visible," and moving out of their old neighborhoods.

There is also a secondary level of victimization that can occur with hate crimes: they create a fear of exposure, particularly if the kind of minority group to which the victim belongs experiences real discrimination or social difficulties in the community anyway. Lesbians and gay males are the most vivid example of this; most of them fear, not unreasonably, that merely admitting to being the target of a hate crime implicates them as homosexuals, essentially forcing them "out of the closet" when in many cases they have personal and professional reasons to keep their status private. More to the point, gays and lesbians can in many states lose their jobs, face evictions from their housing, or may be denied access to public services and accommodations, and legally so—all if their sexual orientation is disclosed as the result of a gay-bashing assault.

This is true of other minorities as well, particularly immigrants, many of whom may fear deportation if they report a crime perpetrated against them, and may themselves mistrust authorities if they come from a culture with a corrupt or oppressive police force. In communities with a history of conflict between minority groups and police, this distrust is often amplified. "So even if you promise them that this is not going to be an issue if they press charges, they don't believe you," says Joan Weiss. "Why should they believe you? It can feel too risky."

In addition, other obstacles arise in such situations: language barriers can create misunderstandings; many minorities may not even be aware that what has befallen them is a serious crime; and cultural differences and private fears can prevent the victims from being completely forthcoming. A person from a traditional and deeply law-abiding background who has stolen a kitchen knife in the process of defending himself during a bias crime may well lie about the theft to police out of simple fear of being in trouble with the law for committing even the minor crime that the theft represents.

All of these factors combine to make hate-crime victims, and minorities especially, deeply reluctant to even participate in an investigation, and ultimately less likely to report the crimes as well—something that the studies of bias-crime victims have repeatedly observed. This in turn raises the critical role played by police and other law-enforcement officials, particularly prosecutors, in their handling of both the victims and the crime scene itself.

When I wrote Death on the Fourth of July, I became much more interested in what befalls the victims of these crimes, and set about intentionally refusing to focus on the perpetrators of the crime (in this case, a group of young locals led by a violence-prone thug named Chris Kinison), though I do of course discuss their motives and behavior. But the deeper nature of hate crimes is revealed, I think, is revealed by understanding what happens to people who are their victims -- the extraordinary fear, the profound pscyhological effects both for the short and long terms, and of course the broader community effects, particularly the terroristic effect on the generic targets of the crimes.

The chief victim in the Ocean Shores case that the book was about -- a Vietnamese immigrant named Minh Hong -- was permanently and irrevocably scarred by his experience. He is, like most such victims, someone who deserves better. So did David Ritcheson.

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