(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)
Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.
Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.
In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.
Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?
To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?
You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?
Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.
Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.
Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?
Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.
We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.
Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?
I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.
Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.
Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.
People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.
Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases. Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.
In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.
There are paths out of extreme hate groups. Let’s help offenders find them.
Punish crime. Heal hate. End the cycle.
 Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.