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August 04, 2009

The Stupidity of Hate-Crime Laws

Columnist Richard Cohen writes in this morning's Washington Post about James von Brunn, the murderer who shot up the Holocaust Museum last month.

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.

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.

He concludes:

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.

Read the whole thing.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 11:08 AM

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