Almost anyone who grew up during the sixties remembers reading about incidents in which racists committed acts of violence against civil rights workers and African Americans who bravely took a stand against racism. Such violent incidents were outrageous to all Americans who believed in the necessity of loving one's neighbor --- or, at the very least, in the necessity of respecting one's neighbor's rights.
It is therefore understandable that some people felt that it was necessary to use the legal system in order to send the message that such crimes would not be tolerated in a free society.
Yet, as much as I understand why someone might be inclined to advocate hate crimes legislation, I think that support for such legislation is intrinsically unprincipled. Ironically, such legislation is based on a premise which undermines the philosophical foundation on which the civil rights movement was based.
Our nation was founded on the belief that "all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights". But hate crimes legislation does not treat all men and women as equals.
If one man is murdered by a person whose motivation was to steal his wallet, and if another man is murdered by a person whose motivation was to send a message of intimidation to the black community, the two men are both equally dead. Murder is wrong regardless of what might have motivated the act. To attach a higher penalty to the latter murder than to the former is to treat the two victims as if their lives were not equal in value.
Murder, by definition, is a hateful and despicable act. It is therefore ludicrous to say that one murder is a hate crime but another is not.
An additional problem with hate crime legislation is that it requires that jury members be able to accurately assess a killer's reasons for committing murder. It's hard enough, in many cases, to determine simple guilt or innocence, let alone to determine what motivated the killing. Motives are often complex. When it comes to violent crimes such as murder, a person's true motives may never be known in this lifetime. It's true that there are situations in which one can state with a fair amount of certainty that it is extremely probable that a person was motivated (at least in part) by a particular thing, but even in such cases, there is a degree of speculation involved. Things are not always as they appear, and none but God can perfectly judge the human heart.
Hate crimes legislation introduces the possibility that racism or another form of bigotry might be assumed, without any real proof, solely on the basis of the respective identities of the killers and their victims. The end result, again, would be to treat certain victims as if their lives were unequal to the lives of other victims.
Hate crimes legislation has the effect of using the coercive power of the state in order to impose specific beliefs and ideas on the population. We may not always like what others believe or think, but we have no right to use the power of the law in order to force others to think as we think. Racists and other bigots may very well be wrong in believing as they do, but they nevertheless have the right to be wrong, in a free society, provided that they do not act on those beliefs in such a way as to violate the legal rights of others. If indeed their beliefs motivate them to commit acts which violate the legal rights of others, then it is those acts which should be punished, without regard for what may or may not have motivated the acts.
I just recently got an email from Tony Perkins, the President of the Family Research Council, regarding Ted Kennedy's attempt to add a Hate Crimes bill as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill (S. 1535). Perkins writes, "The intent of this legislation is to favor some victims of violent crimes over other victims of equally violent crime while ignoring the principle of equal justice under the law."
My only quibble with that statement would be that I would change the word "intent" to the word "effect". I am not in a position to judge Ted Kennedy's intentions or anyone else's intentions, which is precisely the point that I'm trying to make when I oppose hate crimes legislation on principle.
While it might be interesting to know the intentions of those who sponsor particular bills and laws, I'm more interested in knowing what effect those laws will have once they are passed. And I think that such a law would indeed "favor some victims of violent crimes over other victims of equally violent crime while ignoring the principle of equal justice under the law".
I also think it likely that such a law will be used in order to suppress the free speech rights of those whose opinions on matters such as gay marriage and abortion are deemed politically incorrect by political liberals who have a tendency to abuse the court systems in order to impose their views on the general population.