Saturday, April 18, 2009

What is a hate crime?

19th century painting of Our Lady.

Image via Wikipedia

I often consider the question, “What is a hate crime?” My confusion stems from the unending stream of new stories I read while researching posts for my blog. One story caught my attention this week and rekindled an examination of the term. In the beautiful California city of Santa Monica, somebody vandalized a statue of the Virgin Mary on Easter Sunday. By vandalized I mean beheaded.

Local news followed the story. It did not make the mainstream media outlets. The Santa Monica Daily Press reported “Virgin Mary statue found without head.” The first sentence characterizes the incident as a hate crime. “Santa Monica Police are investigating an alleged hate crime after officials with St. Monica Catholic Church discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary beheaded shortly before Easter services commenced.” Is this act of vandalism a hate crime? Is it fitting for the press to label it as a hate crime without understanding the context? I have reservations.

Motivation must be a reason when deciding if a crime is a hate crime. Yet besides the obvious loss of a religious icon’s head, we know nothing about those who perpetrated the crime. It is within the range of likely possibilities that a wayward parish prankster knocked the head off the statue. Or, the head fell off because of damage or through problems with the quality of manufacture; perhaps the structure weakened and the head simply fell off? The new story does not give us enough information to draw our own conclusions, yet they report an alleged hate crime. I don’t get it.

I understand the likelihood of an accidental beheading are small. Discovering the damage on Easter represents some intent by those who perpetrated this crime, but this does not prove hate as the motive. Calling vandalism a hate crime is an unnecessary escalation. What is the societal harm? If no person or group claims responsibility, then who would Catholics retaliate against if they sought to balance the scales? Would nonCatholics bear the weight of Catholic rage? Who is the specific victim? Is it Catholics, Catholics who worship the Virgin Mary or perhaps Catholics who like art? Who knows? Spokesperson Jason Farmer said it best, “Even though it was a sad event, it didn't take away from the joy of Easter and celebrating Christ's resurrection.” I do not see a reference to hate or to Catholics feeling victimized. The police have a different interpretation.

"Anytime a church or school is targeted, we look at it as a possible hate crime," SMPD Lt. Darrell Lowe said. "In this case, since the vandalism was of a very important figure within the Catholic religion, we're classifying it and investigating it as a hate crime."

I think the police department’s orientation is the problem. By using preconditions as a basis for starting an investigation, the police close off possible avenues of investigation. They develop a bias against the crime being anything other than a hate crime. They set up an expectation with the public that an evil actor is targeting Catholics. Framing the crime inaccurately perpetuates an inaccurate characterization of the crime. Their statements are political rather than practical. The police should explore property crime without attaching significance to the crime because the target is an inanimate object representing a supernatural religious icon. How many other works of public art are vandalized in Santa Monica each year? My guess is the number is high. Have you been to Santa Monica lately? Removing graffiti alone employs a small army of city workers. Without evidence to the contrary, the police are fear mongering. Their words are irresponsible and intensify the hate.

Don’t get me wrong. If there is evidence the crime is part of a larger effort to target a group of people because they worship the Virgin Mary, and the crimes include threats, violence, or further acts of destruction, I would join the security patrols which protect them. I hate bullies with a passion. Bigots are bullies in bedsheets. They deserve contempt while their victims deserve protection and justice.

The problem with classifying all acts of vandalism against a church as a hate crime is that it decreases the meaning of term. If Joe Blow, the neighborhood crackhead, beheads the statue in a drug fuels orgy gone wrong. Charging him with a hate crime weakens the term to the point where it undermine the intent of the law.

We know the murder of Matthew Sheppard is a hate crime. We feel it at the core of our humanity. Mathew Sheppard died for being gay. The crime is hate. We know when we see a swastika on a synagogue the intent behind the act has roots in hate. We know this because we know the context of the crime. Context is everything. Beheading the Virgin Mary is a hate crime if for example, the intent was to drive Catholics from the predominantly protestant city of Santa Monica. Is beheading the Virgin Mary a crime if the intent was to express outrage over an unanswered prayer? Context is everything. Without a proper understanding of context, calling and act a hate crime is irresponsible.

Even when we understand the context, mislabeling it as a hate crime because of the atrocious nature of the violence involved, further weakens the term. The most notable case, and the case which started me down this intellectual road, is the notorious Wichita Massacre. Two black men, brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr, murdered 5 people, all white. Conservative commentators tried to characterize the crime as racially motivated despite evidence to the contrary. They ignored the context of the crime by trying to broaden the definition of a hate crime to include people of one race committing crimes against people of another race. Sanity prevailed. The motivation was clearly self-enrichment by morally bankrupt thugs.

I am sure my bias as a libertarian has some influence on my thinking. Hate crime penalty enhancements for example, these seem wrongheaded. Beheading the Virgin Mary as vandalism earns you a light sentence. I might pass you picking up cans on the freeway. If you include hate crime penalty enhancements, community service turns to prison time. I do not see it. It does not make sense. Why not reserve justice for those who earn stern punishment by their evil acts? Even then, the punishment must fit the crime, not an arbitrary additional assessment based on a hard to define standard which is used as a weapon in the hands of unscrupulous district attorneys.

I know I am fighting windmills here. Asking the press to show restraint is like asking a teen to stop texting. It will not happen. The inaction of the press will not stop me from an occasional rant though. I mean, that is our role as bloggers, right?

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