Equal jus­tice fal­ters when hate-crime cat­e­gories ex­pand

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - SULLUM ——— Ja­cob Sullum is a se­nior edi­tor at Rea­son mag­a­zine and a colum­nist with the Cre­ators Syn­di­cate.

The vic­tim of the de­praved crime cap­tured in a Face­book Live video last week, a men­tally dis­abled 18-year-old bound and gagged by tape, seemed con­fused and ter­ri­fied as his as­sailants, at least one of whom he re­garded as a friend, glee­fully hu­mil­i­ated and tor­tured him. They cut off part of his scalp with a knife, punched and kicked him in the head, and forced him to drink toi­let wa­ter, laugh­ing all the while. Ac­cord­ing to Chicago po­lice, the or­deal went on for hours.

Re­spond­ing to an in­ci­dent that was ap­palling in many ways, con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors fo­cused on skin color: The white vic­tim’s black at­tack­ers could be heard curs­ing white peo­ple, prompt­ing de­mands that they be charged with a hate crime. That re­ac­tion il­lus­trates how hate crime laws politi­cize crim­i­nal jus­tice and fo­ment so­cial dis­cord.

“If this had been done to an African-Amer­i­can by four whites,” for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich said on Fox News, “ev­ery lib­eral in the coun­try would be out­raged, and there’d be no ques­tion but that it’s a hate crime.” Glenn Beck bizarrely blamed the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, tweet­ing, “Stand up with me and de­mand jus­tice in Chicago for the beat­ing of a dis­abled Trump sup­porter by BLM.”

That claim, which gave rise to the Twit­ter hash­tag #BLMKid­nap­ping, ap­par­ently was based on the fact that the as­sailants re­peat­edly ex­claimed, “F—- Don­ald JA­COB Trump! F—- white peo­ple!” But it’s not clear that the vic­tim, who has not been pub­licly iden­ti­fied, ac­tu­ally sup­ported Trump, and there is no ev­i­dence of any BLM con­nec­tion.

At­tack­ing some­one be­cause of his po­lit­i­cal be­liefs does not qual­ify as a hate crime un­der Illi­nois law. But do­ing so “by rea­son of” the vic­tim’s race or dis­abil­ity does, and last Thurs­day four peo­ple — 18-year-olds Jor­dan Hill, Tes­faye Cooper, and Brit­tany Cov­ing­ton, plus Cov­ing­ton’s 24-year-old sis­ter, Tan­ishia — were charged with a hate crime in con­nec­tion with the Face­book Live as­sault.

Hate crime laws typ­i­cally en­hance penal­ties for crimes that tar­get mem­bers of cer­tain groups. There­fore, they can have the ef­fect of pun­ish­ing of­fend­ers for their big­oted be­liefs, since a de­fen­dant’s state­ments about his vic­tim’s group may be cited as ev­i­dence of his mo­ti­va­tion.

In this case, how­ever, the hate crime charge is un­likely to af­fect the pun­ish­ment Hill et al. re­ceive, since they are also charged with ag­gra­vated kid­nap­ping, ag­gra­vated un­law­ful re­straint and ag­gra­vated bat­tery. The kid­nap­ping charge alone is pun­ish­able by six to 30 years in prison, com­pared to a max­i­mum of three years for a hate crime in Illi­nois.

The hate crime charge may not sat­isfy crit­ics like Gin­grich and Beck, who per­ceive a racial dou­ble stan­dard in the way crimes mo­ti­vated by big­otry are han­dled. The Chicago Tri­bune re­ports that “in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve the man was tar­geted be­cause he had spe­cial needs, not be­cause he was white.”

If so, this “hate crime” might have noth­ing to do with hate. Per­haps the at­tack­ers picked their vic­tim be­cause they thought he was an easy tar­get, not be­cause they had any par­tic­u­lar an­i­mus against peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

Such spec­u­la­tion about mo­tives prob­a­bly gives the as­sailants, who were im­pul­sively cruel and stupid enough to stream their crime live, too much credit. Try­ing to parse the role that the vic­tim’s race or dis­abil­ity played in this sense­less dis­play of sadism seems like a vain ex­er­cise — un­less you are try­ing to score po­lit­i­cal points or ad­vance your group’s claim to spe­cial treat­ment.

Be­cause hate crime laws el­e­vate some vic­tims above oth­ers, their scope tends to ex­pand over time. If race and re­li­gion are cov­ered, doesn’t fair­ness de­mand that dis­abil­ity, sex, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity be in­cluded as well?

A Louisiana law that took ef­fect last sum­mer clas­si­fies at­tacks on po­lice of­fi­cers, fire­fight­ers, or paramedics as hate crimes too. Sim­i­lar “Blue Lives Mat­ter” bills have been in­tro­duced in sev­eral other states.

This un­seemly com­pe­ti­tion, in which in­ter­est groups vie for recog­ni­tion and sta­tus, has very lit­tle to do with jus­tice, which re­quires equal treat­ment un­der the law.

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