- SXSW 2014
Photo by Peter Castleton.
Columnist Mac McCann argues that beliefs and motivations behind crimes should be irrelevant to their punishment.
Crime is defined as “an act or the commission of an act that is forbidden by a public law.”
Hate is defined as “extreme dislike or antipathy”; hate, therefore, is an emotion, a thought, a feeling. Hate - no matter how unfair, irrational, and despicable it may be – should not be a crime; we must protect freedom of speech and its dependent freedom of thought.
Unfortunately, in America, we often do punish certain thoughts when they’re combined with actions. In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The law expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes that were motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
The law was named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., two victims of unimaginably horrific crimes. In 1998, Shepard, at the age of 21, was targeted by two men, allegedly because he was gay. Shepard was robbed, beaten and tortured and then tied to a fence and left to die.
Also in 1998, three white supremacists took African American James Byrd, Jr. to a remote country road near Jasper, Texas. After severely beating him and urinating on him, they chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck and dragged him, while he was still alive, for three miles, until he was decapitated after being caught on a culvert on the road.
Few crimes can even compare to the indescribable brutality and viciousness of these two atrocities. Undoubtedly, ‘hate’ doesn’t even begin to describe the horror of the actions. The crimes were undeniably appalling, but not because the victims were targeted for their sexual orientation and race. The crimes were so undeniably appalling because of the very actions themselves. Such crimes would be beyond unacceptable regardless of the motivations behind them and that’s the problem with laws against hate crimes.
Congress has defined a hate crime as "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Criminal offenses are just that – criminal offenses. When motivations, defined as “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way,” play a factor in how criminal offenses are punished, people are necessarily punished for their thoughts, as hatred is not an action.
Murder is wrong, regardless of the motivations behind the murder. By punishing ‘hate crimes’ differently than other crimes, we are suggesting that the murder of certain victims is more immoral than the murder of others; we deny the fact that human beings are human beings, regardless of race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.
Our nation values human life. Our nation also values free speech. Murder, of course, deserves to be punished. But the beliefs and motivations of murderers, no matter how irrationally and disgustingly vile they may be, should be irrelevant to their punishment, because even the most heinous ideas should also be protected as free speech.
No one supports hate crimes. But laws against hate crimes take the very thoughts of the criminal into account and then punish them accordingly. ‘Hate crimes’ are thought crimes, and such violations of freedom of the mind should not be tolerated in a society that values liberty.