When I first heard about "hate crimes" and proposals to enhance criminal penalties for certain acts if they could be proven to be animated by "hate," I was deeply suspicious. I have come to re-assess my initial skepticism in light of events like the shootings in Overland Park, Kan., this past Sunday when Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. killed three people at a Jewish Community Center and nearby Jewish retirement home.
So why the initial suspicion? First, I think I lumped the idea of hate crimes with the idea that we should prosecute "hate speech." This latter is a horrible idea, though I admit there are times when I am exposed to something said by Rush Limbaugh or Ted Cruz that I wonder if maybe we should not permit a little bit of prosecution of hate speech. But that is a passing thought, not a serious one. The criminalization of speech should be severely restricted to those instances, such as shouting "fire" in a crowded space when there is no fire or committing slander or libel, which we currently allow. Any broader attempt to criminalize some forms of speech, even hateful speech, offend every liberal sensibility in my body.
Second, I wondered about the idea that we should be criminalizing intent. Of course, all prosecutors and juries have to assess an accused criminal's intent to some degree, but usually, they seek to distinguish whether the person intended to kill or to maim or if they were acting in the heat of the moment or had conceived, over time, a plan and a plot. Still, the law must get into issues of intent one way or another, and if it turns out that someone committed a crime with a special variety of hate in their heart, why not prosecute the intent as well as the crime? The person killed by a racist is just as dead as someone killed in a drive-by shooting by accident or a person killed in a drug deal gone bad.
Further, law instructs as well as punishes. Law tells all of us in society, in broad strikes, what is and is not permissible. Law cannot banish hate from the human heart, but it can tell society and its members that if that hate is cultivated, if it is shared with others and stoked by association with others who harbor similar hatreds, and if it issues in violence against another, that is an impermissible thing, not only because of the violence of the act but because that kind of hatred is destructive of society. The violence is destructive, but so is the hate. It is also why we consider certain crimes acts of terror, is it not?
The killings in Kansas remind us how badly our society needs to be instructed in the destructive power of hate. The three people killed were not killed because of anything they had done to the perpetrator. They were innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact that they were Christians and not Jews is not important.* When you go to the death camps and see the uniforms of the prisoners with their Stars of David or their purple triangles, you grasp something of the horror that is possible when people are considered unworthy of human dignity.
The white supremacist in Kansas was not Hitler, and his act was not genocide. But the difference is one of degree not kind. The neo-Nazi groups in this country may have as much evil in their heart as the original Nazis they emulate, but they do not control a large, industrial country in the heart of Europe. We should see these neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations for what they are: domestic terrorists. We should prosecute them as such and the FBI should monitor the activities of their organizations with all the rigor they apply to other terrorist organizations. It is horrifying to see all the online journals and all the paraphernalia these groups produce. It may not all be criminal, and what they say should be as protected by the First Amendment as what I am writing here today. But law enforcement has an obligation to keep an eye on groups that, ultimately, wish to overthrow the government, harm innocents, and foster violent hatreds.
And the rest of us have an obligation too. The man who shot the people in Kansas ran for Senate in 2010, and he ran a radio ad that said, "We've sat back and allowed the Jews to take over our government, our banks and our media. America is no longer ours. America belongs to the Jews who rule it and to the mud people who multiply in it." The trope of inordinate Jewish power is found not only among white supremacists with confederate flags on their trucks. As Christians, whose treatment of the Jews over the centuries is nothing to brag about, we have a special obligation to make sure that we never, ever traffic in those anti-Semitic tropes that continue to have currency in even respectable circles.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect religion of the deceased.