Saturday, November 14, 2009

Terrorism and hate crimes: rethinking a position

One of the hallmarks of the current American political discourse is ossification: you can no longer seriously grapple with issues, because to be seen even considering a possible change in thinking is a sign of weakness and betrayal.

The initial responses to my last post on the radicalization of American politics in response to the Fort Hood massacre is a case in point: an anti-abortion proponent jumped right in to essentially disavow the existentance of radicalized anti-abortion groups, implying that I had said there were only radicalized anti-abortion groups.

The comment cites the case of Abby Johnson as a non-violent anti-abortion activist who is being harassed by a Planned Parenthood gag order, leaving out two salient facts made clear with the link provided in the comment: (1) Johnson is not prohibited from protesting, just talking about confidential medical and staff information; and (2) it would be illegal for her to share confidential patient health information in the first place.

Of course there are legitimate anti-abortion groups, but there are also homicidal nutcases out there, with web pages, mailing lists, and apparently plenty of people will call the killing of physicians justifiable homicide.

Likewise, the commenter suggested that the difference between anti-abortion groups and Islam is that identification with Islam is a much greater predictor of violence:

However, the laundry list of people snapping, and murdering or attempting to murder others in the name of radical Islam, happens more frequently with larger, more organized incidents on an almost quarterly basis.

There is documented evidence that radical Islam imams openly advocate the murder of non believers, Americans, and U.S. soldiers. These imams reach hundreds, not a just a handful of followers.

Nice try, but essentially irrelevant to my point. First, it ignores dozens of violent anti-abortion incidents. Since the mid-1970s, aside from nine murders, there have been 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, and 3 kidnappings committed against abortion providers.

And yes, there are plenty of radical Islamic imams around and they preach violence and hatred, based--as Clifford Thies notes at Libertarian Republican--on an interpretative dogma of the Quran called abrogation, which is today just about as controversial, either in concept or application, among Muslims as the evangelical concept of literal Biblical inerrancy is with millions of other Christians.

[It is also important to understand that many Muslims who apply the principle of abrogation to their faith do not reach radicalized or violent conclusions.]

All of which brings me around by a very twisted thought process [sorry about that, but if you didn't this happened here you don't stop by regularly] to the question of terrorism and hate crimes.

I have long opposed hate crime legislation, based on the idea that murder is murder, assault is assault, etc., and that to develop specific crimes and sentences based on intent [not premeditation, but intent] is at best futile and at worst an egegrious extension of State power.

But there have always been aspects of this position that bothered me: are kids who spray random graffiti at a cemetery guilty of the same crime as people who spray-painted swastikas on Jewish graves?

Then townie76 asked why it was necessary to categorize the Fort Hood killer as a terrorist--why not just call him a murderer and have done with it?

Well, I thought, because to call him a terrorist is to make the linkage between his actions (violent murder) and his political intent (advancing the cause of radicalized Islam). Based on the evidence we currently have, being a nutcase does not completely explain his crime. Being a radicalized Islamic nutcase who is attempting to intimidate and strike fear into American soldiers and their families is a far better explanation.

The act of killing soldiers at Fort Hood appears to have been not just an act of violence by a disturbed individual, but a politically motivated act of violence by a disturbed individual.

He went on his killing spree because his victims--non-Muslims--had become acceptable not as individuals but as a class of people victims to kill. Their shared attribute? They were infidels perceived as a danger to Dar al Islam. They were therefore not people but a threat--vermin to be eradicated.

Which then led me to the uncomfortable question of how this asshole differed from the guys who killed Matthew Shepard. Shepard was killed not because of who he was as a person, but as a representative of a class of people: queers who threaten the existence the America his murderers fantasized they were protecting. They saw Shepard as being as much a threat to them as Al Qaeda sees American soldiers on Saudi soil, and they therefore felt justified in eliminating that threat.

They were making a political statement that homosexuals will not be tolerated here, just as people who tied hangman's knots and burned crosses were making a political statement that the blacks in American better learn their place and not be uppity.

Is it, I wondered, legitimate to equate terrorism to hate crimes, with the primary difference being the level of organization or the amount of destruction done by the killers?

Are Muslim honor killings in America best described as hate crimes or terrorism? Is one the retail form and another the wholesale form?

Perhaps. I am still not personally sure about the boundaries between them [although commenters will show up and set me straight in my ignorance, never fear].

But I am sure of this: from a societal perspective there is a difference between killing [maiming, attacking, etc.] someone because of the potential for personal gain, or because of heated emotions, or for personal revenge, than there is for executing the same murder/attack/assault against somebody just because they represent a particular group considered to be threatening, with the intent of not just killing that person but sending a message to the rest of the queers, bitches, negroes....

Do both categories overlap? Of course they do.

Do I still have profound reservations about the potential for the State to misuse hate crimes legislation? Yep.

Is there still a difficult line for me between hate speech and protected political speech? You bet.

But I cannot wrap my mind around declaring a war on terror and defining some murderous acts to be terrorism, while not being intellectually consistent enough to label other murderous acts as hate crimes.

I don't think you can make policy based on the concept of terrorism without acknowleding the existence of hate crimes.

So for Hube, Redwaterlilly, Waldo, and others, here's an admission of intellectual weakness in a world of absolutes: My position on hate crimes was fundamentally flawed. You were right all along.


Waldo said...

I don't think it's a world of absolutes at all: I have long been challenged by Andrew Sullivan's argument that hate crimes laws tend to get passed where they aren't needed. The flip side of that- along with some notably horrible cases where local authority willfully dropped the ball (including one here in SC) is that places that won't adopt hate crimes laws tend not to prosecute "regular" crimes against minorities very hard.

Nothing would please me- and many- than not to have to need- or argue over-such laws. When the majority steps up and sets an example against hate, maybe we'll get there.

Miko said...

I'm against hate crime laws mainly because I think it's more likely they'll be used against a protester burning a flag than a KKK member burning a cross.

Moreover, I think that the terrorism=hate crime link is exactly correct. Then coming down against hate crime laws is as simple as taking a look at how the "war on terror" is going.

Being against hate crime laws needn't mean that one is pro-hate or thinks that the hate-motivated crime is indistinguishable from the non-hate-motivated crime. However, from a standpoint of justice (without considering deterrence, etc.) the two crimes are identical, so hate crime laws are at best an expedient. When you consider the facts that they're likely to be applied unevenly and inappropriately by grandstanding prosecutors, it becomes clear that they are in fact more likely an inexpedient.

Plus, hate qua hate can be difficult to detect. Are kids spraypainting swastikas doing it out of the sort of hate that motivated genocide, or are they doing it with the same motivations they'd have for using profanity? 99 times out of 100 (in examples of this type), they're going for shock value and don't really understand the symbolism involved; I defy anyone to come up with a way of determining which of the 1 out of 100 is really a hate crime.

keydet aka Townie 76 said...


Whether one is an Islamic Terrorist, an Abortion Provider Killer, or the Killer of a Gay Man or Woman, it comes down to one thing--they are murders. Saying that their beliefs make their crimes worse is bs and will it ultimately change the sentence. If the sentence is life without parole is the fact they did it because they hate gay people going to change the sentence. Hate crimes law are nothing more than feel good legislation for its proponents. It will be no more of a detriment than the the law which says "thy shall not kill."

What would Locke say, I think he would say, what is the community standard, one should not murder, the reason is immaterial, if one murders another they have violated the standards of the community.

By the way this is a great topic.

keydet aka Townie 76 said...

should say:

is life without parole is the fact they did it because they hate gay people is not going to change the sentence. Hate crimes law are nothing more than feel good legislation for its proponents. It will be no more of a detriment than the the law which says "thy shall not kill."

Suzanne said...

It's OK Steve - I understood your argument before and I do now. But yes, Crimes are already classified in one way or another and classifying one while refusing to do so with another even though they have similarities just doesn't seem right. And, in my opinion, hate crimes are like terrorism - just one a smaller scale - rather then eradicating and threatening a whole nation, you do it one person (of a specific group) at a time.
I really like how you worked this out for yourself.

The Federalist said...

I agree with keydat. There is no reason to classify different PREMEDITATED murders. They are murder in the FIRST DEGREE, punishable by death. Whether you kill a child, a "queer," an infidel, a room full of school children, or two buildings full of 3000 people. When we start classifying REASONS for premeditated murder, we must identify those reasons. It is much easier to identify the OUTCOME than the REASONS behind them. And who is to say whether I killed a queer because I don't like queers or for some other EQUALLY INVALID reason?