Friday, July 27, 2007

a word on hate crimes

I've been thinking about this for the last little while and I've wondered about certain conclusions that seem to end the conversation about hate crime legislation. In light of the current tendency to group all Muslims together based on nothing more than similar religious beliefs, (something by the way that Baptists and Catholics would take huge offense at should anyone group them in the same category), I decided to brush up a little on hate crime legislation and punishment.

There is an argument made that we are uncomfortable legislating against the thoughts of someone as they commit a crime. We argue that one murder for example is no better or worse than another. This I find to be simplistic, naive and patently untrue. I certainly don't condone legislating against thought per se, but our justice system is already designed to determine the degree of a crime in order to offer reasonable punishment. For this reason fraud has a different punishment than shoplifting.

In the case of murder, we have varying degrees of punishment already. We charge drunk drivers with manslaughter versus serial killers who are charged with murder in the first degree. The differences between these two crimes are circumstance and intention. The drunk driver acted with criminal negligence and came across another person on the road. The serial killer stalked his victim, chose them and executed them. In this way, we already recognize that while each person caused the death of someone else and is fully responsible, the crimes are nevertheless different requiring different social reactions.

The second problem with equalizing hate crimes with other crimes is torture. We have very few punitive avenues to pursue to punish people like Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka not because they are killers, but because they deliberately and intentionally tortured their victims before their deaths. We have laws in place in our criminal code that prohibit torturous actions, yet often violent crimes ending in the victims' death are treated as murders only, not several counts of grievous bodily harm resulting in murder.

These are actions designed to entertain the aggressors, endow the aggressors with a sense of righteousness or correctness and finally to diminish as much as possible the victim. In cases such as the murder of Matthew Sheppard, the killers amused themselves with the fear and desperation of their victim begging for his life, they judged him as different and inferior to them giving them a sense of ownership over his destiny, and finally they diminished him by physical subjugation and humiliation. All these things took place before a murder had been committed and for that reason I find his murder to be a separate crime entirely. One for which they should be punished along with the crime of torture, not instead of the crime of torture.

When a lynching takes place, when a woman is stoned to death, when these atrocities are committed, they are not simply as good as the next murder available. We have to address the inherent disregard for human life the killers exhibit as they commit crimes against humanity. For these as well, we recognize degrees. In the Canadian Criminal Code, it is recognized that administering a noxious substance can be done to intentionally kill or simply annoy the victim. We have degrees of laws about torture chambers known as Offence-Related Places and we separate them from each other including separating the crimes that take place in the Offence Related Places. It is for example, illegal to keep up an Offence-Related Place and separately illegal to use it. Separate from each is a crime called simply Death. It states that bodily harm undertaken that results in the death of a person is punishable by life in prison.

I mention this because so often the crimes, when prosecuted, are not pursued with the focus on torture taking place. Murder is treated as murder and the punishment is life in prison, so why prosecute for torture resulting in death whose punishment is also life in prison? Because torture is a separate crime and deserves separate attention. It is not acceptable to rape, injure, maim, mutilate, or psychologically damage other humans for the purpose of entertainment or indeed for any reason. Is it necessary to attempt a sentence of multiple life-sentences when just one closes the book on any subsequent time served once one life is over? Such a sentence's frivolity can be argued, but since we offer multiple life sentences to young adults for drug crimes, I won't split hairs about torture resulting in murder.

We do sentence murderers based on circumstance, degree and intention already. Let us now use the laws we have in place to discuss our own willingness to accept and encourage civil reactions to hate crimes that incite retaliation and further hatred on all sides.

Hatred itself, while disappointing, is not a crime. Neither is anger, passion or greed. These are parts of us that we can allow or not to guide actions which are in some cases criminal. Since humans are emotional creatures who do not volunteer time, work hard, educate children or smile at our neighbors through sheer vacuous, stoic repetition, we should be mindful that we neither shoplift, thieve from our companies, cut, shoot nor rape each other in purely intellectual states.

Hate crimes and their punishments address social issues of a nature we must face and discuss at length as violence escalates in our world and we participate more and more in it here and abroad. We must never use our legislation to banish thought or strong emotions that make us human. We can however, protect our communities and each other by curbing the actions that these opinions and emotions can produce. With such a tool at our disposal, I must now ask, why not?

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