Thought Crimes

Something that really aggravates me is when people say hate crime legislation punishes people for their thoughts, for what’s in their heads.  First of all, hate crime laws aren’t the only laws that do so: how about possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute? What is intent if not another word for thoughts? And how about the distinction we make between manslaughter and murder? Again, thoughts!  So punishing people for thinking certain thoughts is hardly unprecedented or unheard of in our legal system.

Secondly though, I don’t think that’s really what hate crime laws are punishing.  When we declare someone guilty of a crime, we do it on the basis of the effects of their actions, not their intentions (thus manslaughter is a crime and victim impact statements exist).  When someone commits a hate crime, the effects are far larger than those of the same actions committed randomly, because there are repercussions for a much larger number of people.  An act of random or personal violence impacts the victim and generally those close to them (family, friends, etc.).  Perhaps in an abstract or indirect way the people physically or geographically close to the crime are affected (higher crime rates affecting property values, for instance), but that’s about it.

A bias crime, however, involves everyone who shares the characteristic(s) of the victim that led to their being targeted.  When one person is attacked because of their religion or race or sexuality, it makes everyone else of that religion, race, or sexuality more aware of their difference and the ways it puts them at risk.  It reminds them of their marginalization.

Along with the psychological effects, there can be physical consequences too: it is a well-established fact that stress is bad for one’s health, leading to heart disease among other problems (which is why African-Americans have higher rates of hypertension and heart attacks than comparable whites), and what could be more stressful than being perpetually primed for attack?  Human bodies aren’t meant to be constantly on guard, and doing so is rough on them.  There are lifestyle consequences as well: members of the targeted population change how they live in ways both large and small, from taking cabs more often to moving cities, in an effort to protect themselves.

Shouldn’t someone who triggers all this be punished for it?  Shouldn’t they be held accountable for all the lives they’ve touched?  Are these really such difficult and complicated questions?


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