In 1984 George Orwell wrote of a futuristic totalitarian society in which the state executed people for “thoughtcrime,” i. e. for thinking thoughts of which the state did not approve. In using hate crime laws in America, are we punishing people for their thoughts as well?
The question is especially relevant as we try to make sense of last week’s mass murder in Atlanta Georgia, wherein someone killed 8 people. Because 6 were of Asian descent, it’s widely believed the suspect murdered them out of racial bigotry. But he says he did so out of sexual frustration. Which motive the courts accept may help determine the severity of his sentence should he be convicted. And therein lies the problem.
The purpose of most hate crimes legislation is to enhance the punishment of those convicted of crimes if it can be proven that the perpetrator acted out of hatred for the race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disabilities of his victims. The rationale for enhanced punishment is that a crime motivated by bigotry may not only harm or kill the victims, but also instill fear and stress in the group with which the victims were identified. In the Atlanta case Asian Americans will presumably feel more fear should they learn that whoever is convicted was motivated by hate rather than sex.
And what punishment should whoever’s convicted of the Atlanta murders receive? One would think that life without possibility of parole would be the minimum acceptable sentence—the possibility of returning a mass murderer to society is simply too irrational to accept. And if ever there were a crime justifying the death sentence, this would be it. But what if the death sentence were imposed not as a legitimate punishment for a crime heinous by any definition, but because the crime is deemed a hate crime because of the defendant’s bigotry? Whatever the virtues of executing a mass murderer—and as a supporter of the death penalty I see at least 8 virtues in this case—the fact would remain that in this case the convicted killer would be executed not just for what he did, but for his thoughts about the matter as well. The possibility of someone being executed for his thoughts, wherein his life would have been spared had he had different thoughts, should be terrifying. Shades of Orwell!
None of this is to deny the importance of determining motive, even if proving motive is not necessary for conviction. To learn motive may increase our understanding of the crime and the criminal, and could conceivably make it easier to forestall future crimes. At least we ought to try. But we should not use thoughts—even assuming we can accurately determine them, as sometimes we can—as reasons for enhancing sentences of crimes. Nor should we make sentences harsher or lighter based on who the victim should be. The murder of a homeless man who had nobody to care about him should be considered no less horrible than the murder of anyone else. We should use due process to convict (or acquit, if the facts warrant) and the nature of the crime itself to determine as objectively as possible the sentence to be meted out on conviction.
Mention of hate crimes brings to mind the American version of Life on Mars, a TV series based on a British series of the same name. In both versions of the show, a police detective from the modern era is the victim of a terrible traffic accident which sends him back to the year 1973, where he must use the strategies, tactics, and equipment of the earlier era to fight crime. In one episode he remarks to his supervisor that a crime they’re investigating looks like a “hate crime,” to which his supervisor responds, “As opposed to an I-really-like-you crime?” The supervisor thought all crime was hateful and should be punished according.
And we should think so too. Of course, some crimes may be less hateful than others. And a few crimes, such as the euthanasia of a loved one who’s terminally ill with incurable pain, could even be deemed acts of love rather than hate. But by and large we should let the objectively determined acts guide our decision making and leave the thoughts alone to avoid taking a step down the road for totalitarianism.
As far as the Atlanta murders are concerned, whoever’s convicted through due process of law must receive the maximum sentence allowable, whatever that may be. The victims are entitled to the fullest measures of justice and compassion possible, not because of their race or ethnicity or sex, but because of their humanity. That is the only reason necessary.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.