Saturday, August 9, 2008

Equality isn't achieved through unequal laws

(Originally published 8/9/08)

The case of Luis Ramirez is the latest incident that has civil rights advocates calling for an expansion in the federal hate crimes law.

Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant, had been at a friend’s house on July 12. While walking his fiancee’s sister home around 11 p.m., Ramirez encountered three white teenaged boys. Words were exchanged and epithets reportedly used. A fight ensued. When it was over, Ramirez had been beaten into unconsciousness. He died two days later.

The three young men face murder charges, and the federal government has opened a civil rights investigation into the matter. But prosecutors have already labeled the incident a hate crime and have charged the three teens – star students and football players in the small town of Shenandoah, Pa. – with ethnic intimidation.

Hate crimes are specific bias-motivated acts that are defined as distinct crimes and punished with harsher criminal penalties. In addition to the federal provision, all but five states have some form of hate crimes law.

I have always had a hard time understanding the idea that society can create or foster equality by treating its citizens in unequal ways.

Hate crimes laws echo existing provisions outlawing murder, assault and battery, intimidation and property destruction – they just create and designate "protected classes." A murder, for example, can be punished more severely if the victim belonged to a "protected class."

Of course, by definition, if some classes are "protected," that must mean others are not.

Are you one of the lucky ones?

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, the case that set the precedent for hate crimes law, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that bias-inspired conduct is more harshly punished because it "is thought to inflict greater individual and societal harm. For example ... bias-motivated crimes are more likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest."

But if the likelihood of spawning distinct emotional harms and community unrest is the standard, then physical, sexual and mental abuse of children must be hate crimes against kids. Rape must be a hate crime against women.

You see the problem here? Who deserves to be especially protected, and who has to settle for being just plain old regular protected?

And is it even fair to draw such a distinction? Isn’t the life of a person in a non-protected group just as affected as an attack on someone in a protected class? Why should one perpetrator be punished less severely than the other?

And the law already provides “penalty-enhancement provisions:” They’re called aggravating circumstances. Taken into consideration at sentencing, they allow harsher punishment for crimes that are especially heinous or outrageous.

It’s ironic that political liberals are most often the ones supporting the expansion of hate crimes laws. Liberals typically jealously guard their privacy – and rightfully so. Their opposition to the government’s warrantless wiretapping program is one example. But how much more than scanning your call lists is the government invading your privacy when it ascribes motives to your deeds – literally concerning itself more with your thoughts than your actions?

Regardless of whether his killers were racists, Luis Ramirez was beaten to death in the middle of the street.

How can that be any worse?

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