Hateful Crimes

When the U.S. Senate debated the omnibus crime bill last month, there was one provision that passed with hardly a murmur of debate: A measure to enhance the penalties for certain hate crimes passed overwhelmingly, 95 to 4. Such massive support reflects society's dismay over hate crimes. And we should be dismayed. But there's mischief lurking in hate-crime legislation that few people have noted. Certainly we should not tolerate attacks on people for their race or religion-any more than we tolerate attacks on people for their money or their watches. Every reasonable person agrees on that. But hate-crime laws go one step further. They punish hate crimes more harshly than attacks on people for their money or their watches. In essence, they send a message that crimes motivated by prejudice are more serious than crimes motivated by simple greed or cruelty. But is this a message society really wants to send? By elevating victims of hate crimes, we are devaluing other victims. We're in essence telling people that if they're attacked for their money instead of their race or sexual orientation, then their suffering doesn't count as much. It strikes me that hate-crime laws are themselves rather hateful. But the mischief doesn't end here. Even more pernicious is that hate-crime laws come dangerously close to criminalizing attitudes instead of behavior. The offender is punished once for the crime itself, then punished again for the same crime if a judge rules that the motivation was racist or sexist or some other prohibited kind of thought. For example, in a Wisconsin case, a group of black teens were charged with beating up a white teenager. The ringleader, Todd Mitchell, was sentenced to two years for assault. But it turned out that Todd had egged his friends on with the words, "There goes a white boy. Go get him!" As a result, Todd was given an additional two years for his racist attitude. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling. And now the Senate has jumped on the hate-crime band wagon with its omnibus crime bill. But no one is facing the issue squarely: Should a free society punish not only the violence of the crime but also the thought behind it? Once we allow our laws to get into the business of punishing thoughts, then our lawmakers face a truly totalitarian task: deciding which thoughts should be permitted and which should be punished. Think how easily this could be politicized. Recent court rulings have decreed that protesting at abortion clinics can be classified as a hate crime against women. We're standing at the top of a slippery slope that could end with any opinions being outlawed except those of so-called enlightened liberal legislators. When Congress comes back into session this month, the House and Senate will take up the crime bill again to work out a final solution. Why don't you call your representatives, and point out the mischief in hate-crime legislation. In a free society, no one should be punished twice for the same crime.


Chuck Colson


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