Lawmakers should drop ‘hate crime’ term, base punishment on actions

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This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepard Act, and it moved to the Senate to do the same. If the bill becomes law — which seems likely — it will expand federal hate crime protection to homosexuals. However, the situation would be better if Congress had repealed the idea of a “hate crime” entirely.

In 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, for whom the current bill is named, was kidnapped, tortured and killed in his native state of Wyoming. During the ensuing trial, witnesses said that the two men responsible for the crime targeted Shepard because he was gay. Since Wyoming had no hate crime law on the books, the incident brought national discussion to the issue of hate crimes.

First of all, it’s abhorrent that lawmakers would tack Shepard’s name to this or any bill. Doing so is a blatant maneuver to manipulate emotions for political gain. This is a common practice by members on both sides of the aisle and needs to stop. Our leaders must make decisions based upon reason, not sympathy, for the horrible crimes committed against Shepard.

Reason shows that this and any other specific designation of a “hate crime” is unnecessary at best.

Hate crimes are already illegal in this country. Matthew Shepard’s murderers are serving multiple life sentences. How would a hate crime law impose any harsher punishment?

Another oft-cited example of the need for hate crime laws is the murder of James Bird Jr. in Texas, also in 1998. Three men, known white supremacists, chained Bird, who was black, to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him for miles to his death. Two of the men were sentenced to death, and the other will be in prison for the rest of his life. Again, how could a hate crime law bring any more justice to these criminals?

Lesser crimes pose the same question. A man beating up a woman is still assault. Burning a cross in a Jewish family’s yard is still a criminal threat. Crimes are illegal, no matter the motives.

Prosecuting hate brings the government into territory where it doesn’t belong. Hating someone — however bigoted, homophobic or racist the notion might be — should not be illegal. It is the action that should be punished, not the thought.

Trying to unravel “thought crimes” is a nearly impossible business. The minds of criminals are twisted places, and mental illness is often a factor in violent crimes. Single motives might be easy to report in the news, but they are usually not the case. Shepard’s murderers, for instance, were reportedly addicted to methamphetamines. Some witnesses said they had been awake for days, desperate for a fix. Shepard’s sexuality was certainly a factor, but the drug addiction might have played a role as well.

The brutal murders of Shepard, Bird and others are horrifying, and society should spare no cost to bring justice to their attackers. But it must be their actions that are punished, not thoughts. There should be no special place for hate crimes in our legal system — even if there is in hell.

Tim Hadachek is a junior in political science. Please send comments to opinion@spub.ksu.edu.

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