Over the years, I've come to conclude that the attempt to define and prosecute hate crimes is misguided. I says this somewhat reluctantly, because I do believe the desire to recognize and prosecute hate crimes comes from a basically honorable motivation.
The blogger Andrew Sullivan first got me thinking about this differently (the link is to a representative comment by him on the subject), and just recently Paul Oakley's take on the issue was for me compelling enough to clarify my own thinking once and for all.
Now comes word that, in response to pickets, the paper Newsday is apologizing for, and wishing it hadn't published, a cartoon mocking the notion of hate crimes.
The timing, I'll admit, was unfortunate. Just a week before the cartoon ran was the one-year anniversary of the death of an Ecuadorean immigrant at the hands of teenagers who stabbed him to death. And the paper's coverage of immigration issues became a lightning rod for protesters. I'm unable to judge the paper on that specific subject, but I do know that Newsday has a long and basically good reputation for serious community and investigative journalism, although its ownership has changed recently.
But the fact is, the cartoon in question (an episode of Mallard Fillmore) makes a point, although perhaps not as deftly as one would want. And I say this as a non-fan of Mallard Fillmore who was quite happy when one of our local papers dropped the strip a few years ago.
The strip (description courtesy of Richard Prince, quoting a Newsday report on the controversy)
depicted a larger dinosaur chasing a small one. The bigger one says, 'I'm not chasing you because you're a pachycephalosaurus. . . . I'm chasing you because you're delicious.' The smaller dinosaur responds, 'Oh, thank goodness. I was worried that this might be a hate crime.'
Dead is dead. Beaten is beaten. Maimed is maimed. Raped is raped. Doesn't it make sense to punish people based on the consequences of their actions, rather than the thoughts in their heads? If a mugger kills me for my wallet, or kills my friend because he's gay, does the reason for the killing really warrant a different kind of sentence?
Now I'm not against labeling an act, where appropriate, as a hate crime--but I see that basically as a sociological exercise. I just have trouble seeing how that's relevant from the strict standpoint of criminal justice.
One other thing disturbs me about the Newsday episode.
"We expect the cartoons we publish, many of which are nationally syndicated, to amuse, stir and entertain, but never to offend," a spokewoman for the newspaper said in a statement.
Hmmm... Regardless of my own opinion on hate crimes -- is never to offend really the standard that the paper expects to reach? That seems to set the bar so high that all that would pass is pablum.