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Cohen on Hate Crimes–and My Rebuttal

August 5, 2009

Richard Cohen had an op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday that is shocking in how superficially thought out and disingenuously argued it is.  For background (that I believe is relevant), Cohen is a man who believes that gay people can be converted into heterosexuals and claims to have done it himself.*  Below is his piece with my response clearly noted.

James von Brunn, who is alleged to have opened fire and killed a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, is apparently a consummate bigot. His former wife said that his hatred of blacks and Jews “ate him alive like a cancer,” so it might seem appropriate that in addition to having been indicted last week for murder and gun-law violations, he was also charged with hate crimes. At age 89, he proves that you are never too old to hate.

He also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: “A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected.” No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes?

First, let us consider the question of which “community” von Brunn was allegedly attempting to devastate. He rushed the Holocaust museum, which memorializes the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their enablers. There could be no more poignant symbol for the Jewish community. Yet von Brunn killed not a Jew but an African American — security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns.

So which community was affected by this weird, virtually suicidal act? Was it the Jewish community or the black community? Since von Brunn hated both, you could argue that it does not matter. But since I would guess that neither community now gives the incident much thought, the answer might well be “neither one.” So what is the point of piling on hate crimes to what von Brunn has allegedly done? Beats me. He already faces — at age 89, remember — a life sentence and, possibly, the death penalty.

Obviously it is the Jewish community–he attacked at the Holocaust Museum.  Trying to say that it wasn’t an attack motivated against Jewish community because the person who stood in his way happened to be a member of another minority he hated is absurd and disingenuous.  I’m also shocked that he would say that the Jewish community doesn’t give this incident much thought.  It’s a reminder that there are people out there who hate and would harm them simply because of their faith and ethnicity.  Tell the Jewish child who has never personally felt the sting of antisemitism and now sees what this hatred can lead to that he or she shouldn’t give this much thought.  Can Mr. Cohen not imagine the impact this has on those who, for the first time, see what bigotry can drive people to?

Is Cohen’s argument different if the shooter were 19 and had a long life ahead of him?

The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That’s nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what’s being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it’s not as if the crime is not being punished. The added “late hit” of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy.

Von Brunn is not being punished for his thoughts or speech, he is being punished for killing a man and the broader impact he was trying to have on countless others through the brutal execution of these thoughts and words.  In fact, the Matthew Shepard Act specifically protects preaching or speaking hate as long as one doesn’t incite violence.

I sincerely doubt that Cohen would argue that the hijackers on 9/11 were 19 people who simply murdered 2,974 people.  They attacked America and the profound effect that had on America should remind people of the power that actions against a few can have on the entire community (in that case, America).

Let us assume that the “community” is really affected by what we call a hate crime. I am Jewish. But even with von Brunn’s attack, I am more affected by a mugging in my neighborhood that might keep me from taking a walk at night than I am by a shooting at the Holocaust museum. If there’s a murder in a park, I’ll stay out of it for months. If there’s a rape, women will stay out of the park. If there’s another and another, women will know that a real hater is loose. Rape, though, is not a hate crime. Why not?

First, I don’t think rapist rape out of hatred, it’s about control and a whole host of other issues.  That view is debatable, so let’s move on.  A mugging in your neighborhood is a crime based on timing and proximity.  A hate crime is perpetrated for an entirely different purpose–to invoke fear in a group and to change the way the members of that group lead their lives.  I recently read (and I can’t remember where) an argument along these lines:  If you woke up and found a pile of wood burning in your yard, you’d react very differently than if you wake up to two pieces of wood burning in your yard nailed in the shape of a cross. Crimes motivated by hate and intended to scare because of one characteristic are simply different than a random crime.

I vehmently disagree that a mugging is an attack on a community.

I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime. If they are not already deterred by the conventional penalties — prison, etc. — then why would additional penalties deter them? And if, in fact, they kept their mouths shut, refrained from the N-word or the F-word or the K-word, and simply made the beating or the killing seem one triggered by dissing or some other reason, then they would not be accused of hate — merely of murder or some such trifle. If, though, they gave vent to their thoughts, they would be in for real trouble.

This is the fundamental difference Cohen can’t seem to grasp.  The idea isn’t to protect these groups (including religious groups who frequently oppose hate crimes protections for other groups) from any crime; it’s to protect them from being victimized for some individual characteristic.  If a person is targeted because of proximity, that is simply not the same as a crime intended to send a larger message.

For the most part, hate-crime legislation is just a sop for politically influential interest groups — yet another area in which liberals, traditionally sensitive to civil liberties issues, have chosen to mollify an entire population at the expense of the individual and endorse discredited reasoning about deterrence.

Hate crimes legislation isn’t simply about deterrence.  Hate crimes legislation gives local police the resources to investigate these crimes and protect all citizens.  Further, it gives the federal government the authority to investigate these crimes if local officials refuse.  If anything, Hate Crimes Legislation is about ensuring that the people who are victimized in Akron, Ohio or Calais, Maine receive the same protection as those in New York City or Los Angeles.

In von Brunn’s case, the hate-crime counts are an obscenity. To suggest that the effects of this attack were felt only by the Jewish or the black communities — and not, for instance, by your average Washington tourist — ghettoizes both its real and purported victims. It’s a consequence that von Brunn himself might applaud.

The difference is when the DC tourist gets on their plane or train, they are no longer part of the victimized group.  Cohen’s three children, however, can’t get on a train and escape being Jewish.

*I put this note down here so as not to distract from my critique of his argument on an intellectual basis by commenting on his theories on sexuality and personal life.  However, it’s worth noting that after he went from gay to straight, married a woman and had 2 of his 3 children, he had a 3 year affair with a man.  I only raise this to point out to questionable nature of his claim to have been turned straight.  If he wants to say he’s a bisexual, fine.  However, claiming to have been “turned straight” and then to carry on a relationship with a man only does harm to those in the gay community who hear that they can choose to be straight.  Just a personal note I couldn’t not make.

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