During his disastrous term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
during the late 1970s, Andrew Young told an interviewer that prisons
in this country held perhaps “thousands of political prisoners.”
Congress and the media followed with a predictable outpouring of
anger, which helped lead to Young’s resignation the next year.
Young’s point, of course, was that because large numbers of black
Americans populated prisons — and America was a racist country — they had to be there for political reasons. The insinuation was
clear: people who commit crimes ostensibly for political reasons
(or at least be a member of a politically-favored group) should
not be held to the same standards as common criminals. Their actions
should be judged upon the political status of the perpetrators,
not the actions themselves.
Such arguments were predicated upon the belief that political beliefs
and ideologies are superior to other sets of beliefs, be they religious
or otherwise. Thus, when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped
Patrician Hearst in 1974, many people opined that since the SLA
members were supporting a worthy cause (“helping the poor”),
they should not have been held accountable to their crimes of murder,
bank robbery, and kidnapping. At worst, many argued, the punishment
handed out to those in the SLA and like organizations should have
been less severe than retribution given to common criminals who
commit their transgressions out of simple greed or anger.
Indeed, the recent arrest of Kathleen Soliah, an SLA member who
had escaped justice for 25 years, has triggered a new wave of protest,
as her supporters hold that she has a “passion for justice”
(read that, a left-wing view of the world) and is above prosecution.
And since many of the baby boomers who glorified the politics of
destruction during the 1960s and 1970s are now firmly entrenched
in the modern political class, Soliah may very well get away with
How strange it seems, then, that those who have glorified political
causes for so long have now created a new class of political transgressions:
the hate crime. The continuing politicization of modern life has
come full circle, as one’s political biases legally can now be a
factor in the meting out of punishment for what was once simply
a crime against a person or property. And instead of pointing out
the real evils and injustices which result from politicizing crime,
many people belonging to groups which bear the brunt of hate crime
accusation are now demanding hate crime protection themselves.
Before going farther, we must define the hate crime. It is an attack
(either bodily or verbal) against the person and/or property of
someone in a politically protected social group by someone who was
motivated to do the assault because he does not like the general
characteristics of the protected group.
For example, if I (a white male) rob a black or Jewish person not
because I want their possessions but because I dislike blacks and
Jews, I can be charged with a hate crime, for which conviction brings
more severe penalties than conviction for a simple crime. However,
if I rob or shoot a black or Jewish person simply because I want
their money, then I may be charged with a crime, but have not crossed
the line into politically incorrect behavior.
The reasoning behind hate crime laws is that it is more odious to
have a certain political frame of mind while committing a crime
than simple greed or anger. Furthermore, such a law makes certain
political assumptions about the person who commits the act, that
somehow his or her status is in itself proof of political oppression.
Take the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a federal law which allows
women to sue men who rape them, the idea being that rape is violence
against a political class of people by a more powerful political
class. (Some in Congress had unsuccessfully sought to enshrine the
act into criminal law before compromising by placing it in the category
of civil law.)
In other words, according to the backers of this law (which is currently
under review by the U.S. Supreme Court), the horror of rape is not
due to the fact that a man has sexually violated an individual woman
against her will but rather because as a member of a political class
of males he has oppressed a weaker political class of females. Thus,
the awful crime of rape is reduced to the crime of improper political
thinking, making a rapist a political prisoner.
In the last year, two murders and a shooting have galvanized the
hate crime industry. Three white hoodlums brutally murdered James
Byrd, Jr., a black resident of Jasper, Texas, by dragging him behind
a pickup truck. Another group of hoodlums in Laramie, Wyoming, pistol
whipped a homosexual male student at the University of Wyoming,
while in Los Angeles, a deranged gunman who was connected with alleged
white supremacist groups opened fire on a group of children at a
day care located in a Jewish community center.
These three incidents have increased calls not only for more states
to pass hate crime laws, but also for a nationwide law which would
force people who commit such crimes to be tried in federal court.
Implications for such laws are obvious.
In the first place, the swiftness of justice in the Texas and Wyoming
cases demonstrate that local law enforcement officials are not interested
in sweeping such things aside. Juries in Texas have already condemned
two of Byrd’s murderers to death and the third suspect awaits trial.
The perpetrators in Wyoming quickly pleaded guilty in order to avoid
the death penalty. Neither state has a hate crime statute, yet justice
was quick and severe.
Those who believe that a hate crime law would have resulted in an
even greater degree of justice in Texas should remember that if
those convicted under such a law were to be sentenced to death,
then they would be executed not for their deed, but for their political
biases. As odious as some of those beliefs would be to most people,
it would represent the ultimate triumph for the modern political
class: a death sentence for politically incorrect attitudes.
One group which has been constantly blamed for inciting hate crimes
has been conservative evangelical Christians. The rhetoric which
flowed from many political commentators and editorialists after
the Wyoming murder and the Los Angeles shooting clearly blamed Christians
who believe homosexuality is sinful and that Christianity exclusively
provides the true path to God. The proliferation of hate crime law
endangers Christians who will become targets of political opportunists
who, like Nero after the fire in Rome, seek to blame a minority
in order to increase their own power and influence.
Yet, after a gunman shouting anti-Christian slogans recently murdered
seven people in a Fort Worth, Texas, Baptist Church before killing
himself, Gary Bauer and other conservative Christian political figures
demanded that the incident be investigated as a hate crime. This
is me-tooism at its worst. Christians, along with other religious
minorities, have nothing to gain from hate crime laws, since they
will ultimately find themselves the targets of political demagogues,
but the lure of political opportunism was simply too great for Bauer
and his followers to ignore.
Hate crime legislation not only is unnecessary, it is harmful to
the pursuit of universal justice. Like so many laws and regulations
before them, hate crime laws are tools wielded by the political
classes to create and then destroy their enemies. By interpreting
what really are crimes against individuals to attacks upon politically-favored
groups, hate crime legislation strips justice of what should be
the characteristic of equality under law. Such laws do not protect
us from tyranny. They are tyranny.
Professor Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College
in South Carolina.