The philosophical problem with hate-crime laws derives from their emphasis on motive. Essentially, the laws allow the federal government to prosecute offenders not only for what they do but also for what they are thinking at the time they do it.
Certainly, crimes committed out of hate or bigotry are reprehensible. We are right to be outraged when criminals target people simply because of their race or religious beliefs.
But killing someone because he is Irish or because he is a member of the Masons is just as heinous as killing someone for the reasons specified by hate-crime laws. And what about a random killing with no apparent motive? That certainly indicates the psycopathic nature of the killer and offers equal reason for vigorous prosecution.
Proponents of hate-crime laws say the laws don't outlaw bigotry or "thought crimes." But they do apply to violent crimes that are motivated by bigotry, and making penalties harsher for hate crimes virtually amounts to criminalizing bigotry.
Proponents add that when blacks or Jews, for example, are targeted by criminals, the effect is not simply a crime against an individual but also against the aggregate group of those share traits of the victims. The crimes, then, are a form of terrorism against against a select group of people.
The point is valid, but, again, it makes little sense to single out certain groups for this special sanction. Any indiscriminate crime also has the potential of terrorizing a larger group of people, including anyone who lives near the victim.
This week, the hate-crimes law was expanded to include new categories of victims. The measure would add sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the list of protected classes under the 1969 hate-crimes law.
Gay-rights organizations are heralding the inclusion of these new categories to the list. And, I suppose, if we are going to have federal hate-crimes laws, it makes sense to include those who are preyed upon simply because of their sexual orientation to the list.
That reasoning, however, isn't universal. To get this bill through Congress, sponsors tacked it onto the defense authorization act, a bill that will fund defense procurement and gives military personnel a pay raise — in other words, a popular bill entirely unrelated to hate crimes.
Proponents obviously did not think the hate-crime measure could stand on its own. And that says something about the continuing ambiguity among many Americans as to whether people deserve special protections because of their sexual orientation.
What strikes me as hypocritical is that, at the same time Congress enacts a law to protect gays against hate crimes, it turns a blind eye to laws that discriminate against gays and help propogate bigotry against them. Why, for example, does the United States continue to ban gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military?
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy is not only discriminatory but also harmful to national security. Hundreds of talented, dedicated, patriotic service men and women have been drummed out of the military because of this policy — even though most of their fellow troops and the nation's military leaders would like to see the policy abolished.
Gays and lesbians can be legally married in only a few states. If Congress wants to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, why not repeal the Defense of Marriage Act?
And while they're at it, why don't lawmakers pass a federal law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace?
As noted, violent crimes motivated by bigotry against people because of their sexual orientation — or any of the other classes covered by the hate-crimes laws — are contemptible. But the federal government could do more to promote equality for gays, lesbians and transgendered people by getting rid of laws that amount to officially sanctioned discrimination.
If we want to reduce discrimination against gays and lesbians, at least give them a level playing field first.
ABOUT THE WRITER
James Werrell is The Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.