The Magazine

Call It Murder

But don't call it a hate crime.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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PAMELA WAECHTER was murdered at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle on Friday, July 28--an American who was born a Lutheran and reared in Minneapolis, a middle-aged mother, a convert to Judaism who became a leader in Seattle's Jewish community. Pamela Waechter. Do not stamp her "hate crime" victim and file her away. Because her killer said, "I'm Muslim American; I'm angry at Israel," the local police and the FBI have both called this a "hate crime" murder--just one more handy tag for deceased human beings whom you lack the time or energy to remember. And this particular tag is foolish and destructive. It attempts to bring home the frightfulness of the ultimate crime by seasoning it with social-worker talk.

Murder is always a crime, and to call it a "hate crime" adds nothing and explains nothing. (Murders done for love or any other reason are just as bad.) Hatred is never a crime; if the Seattle killer had kept his hatred to himself, it would still be his business and no one else's. The "hate crime" label makes it too easy to lose track of the dead woman as we ponder the crime and the killer. It speaks of a society where solving crime isn't enough for law enforcement officers; where they need to preen for the cameras too. It suggests a society that is already on the road to forgetting that we claim the power (in this free land) to police your actions, not your emotions.

Of course it is important that hatred is wrong for America's two principal religions. Although Judaism and Christianity travel different routes, they reach approximately this same point. But there are subtleties along the way. And policemen and justice officials are the wrong people to teach us about them. We should be hearing about these topics from our priests, rabbis, and ministers (and maybe our philosophers of ethics, if they can remember to hold onto reality and think straight). The whole idea of "hate crime" is one more sad symptom of the dreadful modern tendency to replace "moral" by "legal," "what is right" by "what is lawful" (which inevitably becomes "what you can get away with")--and worst of all to substitute bureaucrats, legislators, and academics for clergymen and bona fide philosophers.

It is not merely nonsense, it is dangerous to call certain crimes "hate crimes." Suppose some thug commits barbaric cruelties against a homosexual because of his homosexuality--an obvious "hate crime." Would the crime have been less wicked if the same thug had done the exact same thing to the same man who happened, in this scenario, to be a homeless drifter the thug had never seen before? Whose face he didn't happen to like?

Here is the real danger and potential evil of the "hate crime" label. Society will be tempted to pour more energy into solving the hate crime than the other one. Sometimes it's right to work harder on certain crimes--if the criminal is likely to strike again, if the crime is virulent and likely to catch on; for other reasons of public safety. And it's only natural to work harder on history-making crimes that affect the whole public--a Lindbergh kidnapping, a JFK assassination.

But we want fewer and not more "special" crimes that get extra attention. Equal justice under law is the noble idea carved on the front of our Supreme Court building. It means that, among other things, we pursue killers of down-and-out drifters just as hard as any other killers. It's true that talk about "hate crimes" began partly because some crimes were getting less than their fair share of attention, under some circumstances in some places. But we no longer live in 1965.

Equal justice under law is a goal we are still far from reaching, but it's a good goal--and labels like "hate crime" send us off in the opposite direction. They distort the landscape of justice. How ugly and odious that affirmative action should still be pulling strings and putting in fixes post-mortem, should still be working to submerge your actual personhood under a flood of chatter and statistics when you are in your grave.

Maybe the FBI believes that, after all, hate is wrong and citizens must be taught not to do it. But even the briefest glance at (for example) the Jewish sources makes clear why this view is simpleminded.

Three statements tell us collectively that hatred is bad but not all hatreds are equal, and circumstances and gradations are crucial. Most important, in the Bible: "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt rebuke yes rebuke thy neighbor" (Leviticus 19:17). Which does not condemn hatred; it orders us never to let hatred fester--conceding implicitly that hatreds do arise and always will. And when they do, we are precisely not to pretend that they haven't. (Here the Bible anticipates the psychology of Nietzsche and Freud.)