Thursday, 29 October 2009

Hate crimes: treading the thin line

There's a narrow line between prosecuting for inciting violence and prosecuting for speech, thought and so-called "hate."

I am torn on the issue of "hate crimes." Like Ed West of The Telegraph, I shudder at the idea of prosecuting someone merely for saying something homophobic. I believe in free speech. Causing offence, in and of itself, should never be a crime. Yet I cannot bring myself to dismiss hate crimes legislation wholesale, as Ed appears to, for it seems to me they identify an important element of a crime that warrants a different or more severe treatment.

The element is intimidation, threat or violence directed towards an entire community or group of people. A common argument against hate crimes is that a murder is no worse or different simply because the victim was gay or black, say. It devalues a life, say critics, to punish a racially motivated murder more severely than any other murder. Is one person's life more valuable than another's?

This might be a valid criticism if it understood the reasoning behind hate crimes legislation, but I think it misses the point. A hate crime is not punished more severely because one life is more valuable than another, but because it has - and was intended to have - more victims. If a murder can be shown not only as an attack on the immediate victim, but as an assault on an entire community, intending to cause wider fear and intimidation, then why should it not be punished more severely? If you kill two people, you get a harsher sentence than if you killed just one. If you steal $1 million, you get a harsher sentence than if you stole just a dollar. If a crime has multiple victims, the punishment is more severe.

This, to me, is the basic principle behind the concept of hate crimes.

But it doesn't end there. I'm undecided whether hate crimes legislation is the way to deal with this difference. First of all, "hate" is a regrettable misnomer. All sorts of murders are motivated by hate, regardless of the victim's ethnicity or social group. Hate - which implies thoughts and emotions - never can be a punishable crime in and of itself.

Second, does the presence of a racial motive (for example) necessarily suggest intent to target a community, rather than an individual? Does it automatically result in the victimization of a whole group of people?

The law must be realistic. If a crime has multiple victims, the criminal should be treated accordingly. Just as we cannot let the fear of racism and discrimination stifle debate on immigration and multiculturalism, so we can't let fear of political correctness, or of a future police state prosecuting for thought crimes shut down debate on racism, homophobia and hate crime.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of years ago I reviewed the book Must We Defend Nazis on my blog ( I think you would find the argument interesting. In effect the book argues against 'free speech' because of the real harm hate speech can do.

    My initial impressions were not great but by osmosis I have become more sympathetic + it's avalable 2nd hand very cheaply!