I have a weird relationship with the concept of ‘hate crimes’. On the one hand, we ought to punish people for their behaviours, rather than their beliefs. The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience. Yes, once conscience moves beyond the boundaries of one’s head it is subject to the rule of law, but adding punishment for believing the wrong thing still seems at odds with that principle. On the other hand, sometimes things like this happen:
Two suspects arrested in a shooting spree that that left three people dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma have confessed, police documents filed in court said. An affidavit filed on Monday said 19-year-old Jake England confessed to shooting three people and 32-year-old Alvin Watts confessed to shooting two.
“There is a lot of media interest in this country about whether it was a hate crime and the police are very keen to play that down,” [Al Jazeera reporter John] Terrett said. Police have yet to describe the attacks, which took place on Friday morning, as racially motivated, although the suspects are white and all five victims were African Americans.
Police are also examining whether England was trying to avenge the death of his father, who was killed two years ago. ”He [England] wrote what looks like a race hate rant on Friday, the day of the shootings, on his Facebook page, referring to the killing of his father at the hands of an African American man who wasn’t charged with murder or attempted murder,” Terrett said.
Some of you will note the similarities between this story and one that I’ve highlighted previously, where a group of teenagers drove into a neighbouring county to randomly kill a black man, running over the first one they could find with their truck. In this case, two men decided to drive around Tulsa and fire bullets at black people, one apparently in a shockingly misguided attempt to get revenge against the entire black race for conspiring to kill his father. One wonders whether or not Mr. England would be supportive of his own victims driving around Portland and picking off as many white people as they could in order to get their own vengeance.
I suppose I could make some kind of snarky comment here about “post-racial” America and segue into a diatribe about how racism is still very much a way of life in the American South, but there is another aspect to this story that I think needs to be explored in order to understand why hate crime laws exist:
The attacks had alarmed many in the predominantly black north Tulsa area, and local community leaders met earlier in an effort to calm worries about the shootings. Terrett, reporting from Washington, DC on Sunday, pointed out that Tulsa’s black community has been “terrified” by the shootings.
“There has been two days of sheer terror for the people of the north side of Tulsa which is mostly an African-American area. They have changed their daily routines because they were so terrified by the crimes,” he said.
So there are gradations of hate crimes – some are more blatant than others – but this is a pretty clear-cut example of a series of murders that were random in every way except for race. This was not crime committed against these people who just so happened to be black, based on a personal vendetta or an altercation in which tempers were heated and derogatory phrases bubbled out unbidden (which, I suppose, would be the borderline case) – no, this was a crime intentionally committed against the entire black community of Tulsa. There was no warning, no discussion, no threat – just bullets. Punishing these two men for the murders is, of course, de rigeur, but one’s sense of justice asks the question: is there no price to pay for terrorizing an entire community? Is there no ability to make the strength of the charge proportionate to the full extent of the crime?
My compromise in this issue has always been to identify crimes as hate crimes, and give judges wide discretion when determining sentence length, but much like any time I am forced to compromise I end up feeling dirty.
Of course, here at home we have a story that is equal parts similar and different:
After two years of increases, Canadians reported fewer hate crimes in 2010, especially in Vancouver and southern Ontario, Statistics Canada said Thursday. Most of the decrease was a result of fewer reported violent hate crimes, Statscan said in releasing its latest annual survey for hate-motivated offences.
The survey noted that black Canadians, who were targeted in about 20 per cent of reported incidents in 2010, only make up 2.5 per cent of the population. There were 1,401 hate crimes reported to police in 2010, or a rate of 4.1 hate crimes per 100,000 population. While the 2010 rate was 18 per cent lower than the previous year’s rate, it remained the second highest per capita rate since national figures started being systematically compiled in 2006.
Of course, as I said the last time I published a story about this kind of report, these kinds of statistics have to be taken with a serious grain of skepticism, since there will always be a gap between the number of reported hate crimes and committed hate crimes, but it is encouraging to see that, if that number has any meaning whatsoever, the frequency of hate-based attacks (the majority of crimes are classified as ‘mischief’, which means things like graffiti – 33% were violent crimes) appears to be dropping. But still we see the existence of an eight-fold race-based disparity. As a black Canadian, I suppose I should take a mixed sort of comfort in the reduction in the absolute number (the fact that I’m a middle-class cis gendered man certainly helps a lot too), but the results are still pretty scary.
I don’t know what the answer is to how to respond to crimes that are clearly motivated by hate. Whatever that answer is, however, ignorance of the fact that hate crimes still exist (or complacency about that fact) cannot be part of it.
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