Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Thought on Hate Crimes

NPR's Talk of the Nation did a segment today with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother, she has a book out entitled The Meaning of Matthew in which she seems to talk about how Matthew Shepard's life and death transformed the gay rights movement as well as her personal struggle with that horrible incident.  I haven't read the book so if that's not accurate forgive me.

At one point during the show, Judy Shepard discussed her support for hate crimes legislation, and she framed hate crimes as being the use of brutality in order to control a group of people through fear.  So a cross burning is not aimed at the person whose lawn it is burned on so much as being an expression of lynching to strike fear in the hearts of the targeted community.  Cross burnings and lynchings are ways to control the African American community rather than a means of attacking that particular person (though of course they are at the same time attacking that person).  This seems right to me, and got me thinking, if the point of hate crimes laws is to add an extra legal sanction against that brutal means of expressing control over a marginalized community, why not prosecute such acts as terrorism cases?  The Patriot Act defines terrorism as the following:

(5) the term `domestic terrorism' means activities that--
        `(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
        `(B) appear to be intended--
          `(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
          `(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
          `(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
This is a small piece of the Patriot Act that I consider useful, because terrorism is precisely that, it is a means to intimidate and coerce populations or governments to behave in a certain way under threat of violence.  Sounds a lot like Judy Shepard's description of a hate crime.  If nothing else can come from the horrible events of September 11th 2001, and the absurd policies that followed it, it should be that we as a society will not tolerate violence as a means of social control or coercion.  Rather than prosecuting these types of acts as "hate crimes" they should be prosecuted as acts of domestic terrorism.  I am supportive of hate crimes legislation and agree with the goal, but prosecuting these types of actions as terrorism rather than hate crimes seems to add a lot more levity to the situation and seems more socially justifiable to people who misconstrue hate crimes legislation as a form of "thought control."

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