Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hate crimes and terrorism

The recent sentencing of an ELF member for acts of arson that were legally found to be "terrorism" raised an interesting question in my head. Namely: how can people who frown upon laws against so-called hate crimes support laws that ban terrorism?

Many conservatives such as George Will and make a quite valid point in arguing against hate crime laws that it is a dangerous precedent to punish the same crime differently because of the motivation in someone's head. This amounts to punishing thoughts, which should make any lover of freedom shudder, even if the thoughts being punished are abhorrent. It is acceptable to pass a law that you cannot lynch black people, but it is not acceptable to pass a law that says you cannot be a bigot against black people; even the ACLU would agree with this.

And this brings me to terrorism. What distinguishes terrorism from mere destruction and mayhem? Is it not entirely about motivation and intent? Yet it would be hard to find a conservative (or liberal for that matter) who would argue that we shouldn't have laws against terrorism.

In fact, I have thought about this and have come to the conclusion that I cannot come up with a definition that distinguishes terrorism from hate crimes. It's a pornography thing - we know it when we see it. When a Sunni insurgent blows up a car in a Shiite market in Baghdad, we would call it terrorism. Yet if someone attacks a Muslim in America in (perceived) retaliation, say, for 9/11, we'd call it a "hate crime." Yet what really distinguishes these two heinous crimes? Both target innocent non-combatants for being who they are, not for anything they have done or any role that they play. I have scratched my head and I simply cannot identify any meaningful facet that distinguishes these two acts.

It seems to me, therefore, that logical consistency requires that you either support (in principle) the idea of anti-hate-crime legislation AND anti-terrorism legislation (assuming, of course, that the laws promise to actually be effective and otherwise reasonable), or that you support NEITHER of the two. I simply cannot see how one can be for anti-terrorism legislation, but opposed to the idea of hate crime laws.

So which position should one take? I think the George Will crowd is right on the one point - you cannot and should not outlaw abhorrent thoughts or points of view - but miss the critical larger point: "hate crimes" are crimes (arson, murder, etc.) that are made worse not because of the motivation or thoughts of the perpetrator, but because they are committed in order to intimidate a larger group. A mugger attacking a random person differs from a skinhead attacking a minority in that the first consists of a single crime, while the latter actually consists of two: the attack itself, and the intimidation of the minority group. Terrorism is, of course, exactly the same - the car bomb in the Baghdad market is not mere murder, but murder that intimidates a specific group beyond those actually killed.

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