There's a running debate online about whether or not we should support hate crimes. Lots of ostensibly liberal commentators, as well as many libertarians, think that hate crime legislation is redundant; if they're already committing a violent crime, shouldn't they just be prosecuted for that? It's a slightly different tack than the conservative/Republican critics who argue that hate crime legislation is "thought" policing, because it requires jurors to get inside the head of the offender and figure out whether the crime was motivated by racism, homophobia, etc.
Over at Sullivan's blog, he has an astute letter from a reader who responds to Sullivan's reservations about hate crime bills:
But I've often found myself questioning whether or not you and/or folks of your ilk would be against any kinds of legal distinction under the law. For example, should aggravated sexual assault simply be considered a violent crime, rather than a specific crime having to do with non-rape violence of a sexual nature? Or perhaps, from the same viewpoint, all crimes of a sexual nature ought to be considered sex crimes. In that case, should there be a distinction between aggravated rape, coerced statutory rape, consensual statutory rape, and child molestation?
I like this point. I have a tendency, when I hear an opposing opinion that seems well-thought out and consistent, to take it very seriously. Sometimes, when scanning blogs, I'll even accept such arguments without much reflection. But this letter raises a serious problem for the whole "redundancy" argument.
The emphasis upon the importance of distinctions also brings me to an additional thought: perhaps it is not that hate crimes legislation is over-specified (both "hate" and "crime"), but because the legislation is under-specified that it's a problem. "Hate" is a pretty broad designator for a class of crimes -- and while the legislation does suggest what kinds of racism, homophobia, etc., the law should apply to, maybe we should have separate crimes. "Racist assault and battery." "Aggravated homophobic manslaughter." "Anti-Semitic aggravated assault."
This may sound tongue-in-cheek, and like it'd be a huge pain in the ass, but perhaps part of the difficulty critics have with this legislation is that it seems it could be applied whenever you proved some kind of systematic hatred, and insofar as hatred is perhaps the sine qua non of violence, if not human emotions (sorry, love), the law should apply to TONS of crimes -- maybe too many. On the other hand, I think it would be pretty hard to criticize, and more palatable to accept, legislation specifically aimed at KKK thugs wielding bats.