Monday, December 13, 2004

Hate Matters

Matthew Shepherd’s very existence was an affront to people like Mark Hyman and those who share his political and social outlook. As a gay man, Shepherd was by definition “wrong” and “deviant.” His simple presence challenged the narrowly defined ideas of what constitutes acceptable social hierarchy in the eyes of reactionary social conservatives.

This is important to keep in mind when reading
a commentary such as that Hyman recently gave on the issue of hate crimes. Piling on with other far-right radicals, Hyman suggests that a recent interview of Shepherd’s killers (in which they claim they beat him to death in a botched robbery rather than because he was gay) shows the silliness of hate crimes legislation. Wrapping himself in the trappings of a champion of egalitarianism, Hyman suggests that it is the killing of Shepherd itself that’s the crime—the motivation is immaterial. After all, he reasons, poor Matthew Shepherd is still just as dead, no matter what feelings spurred the killers to do their deed.

First, let’s dispose of the premise on which Hyman’s commentary is based. You don’t need to be Quincy or a habitual viewer of “CSI” to know that driving someone out to the middle of nowhere, tying him to a fence, and systematically torturing and beating him to death is not something that happens during a “botched robbery.” This was a crime of passion, of hatred. But Hyman accepts the murderers at their word, implying that they would have no motivation to lie. Gosh, Mark, we don’t know . . . maybe if you’re a young guy locked up for life with large angry men who engage in homosexual sex, it might be wise to downplay the “I hate fags” stuff.

More importantly, why would they wait until now to tell the truth about their motivation rather than at the trial? The only rationale would be that they and their lawyers believed going with a gay bashing defense would be more likely to win sympathy from a jury, a position that is just as much an indictment of rampant homophobia as the killing itself.

But the larger issue is the social relevance of the motivation behind the crimes. We’re agnostic on the proposition that punishing hate crimes with more severe punishments is both helpful in decreasing discrimination and constitutional. Traditionally, the law punishes acts rather than motive (hence the usually lighter sentences for attempted murder than for murder, even though the intent in both crimes is the same), and there’s a danger that such legislation could open the door to laws that punish thought. On the other hand, the various types of charges that can be brought against someone for taking the life of another (three different degrees of murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, etc.) are based largely on issues of state of mind. And even Hyman wouldn’t argue that the Holocaust and the wholesale killing of Japanese and German civilians by Allied fire bombing during the Second World War are morally equivalent acts because they both resulted in the deaths of countless innocents. We put the Holocaust in a category of its own because it was a systematic attempt to annihilate people simply for being who they were rather than as an admittedly horrific part of an effort to win a war.

But acknowledging motivation of the Shepherd murder, even if one doesn’t use this as a factor in determining punishment, is crucial. “Hate crimes,” is a relatively new phrase, but it’s not a new concept. Indeed, a great number of murders of African Americans (and others) during the 1960s could only be punished by acknowledging that these murders were a violation of the civil rights of the victims (the murder charges often didn’t stick because of jury nullification on the part of all-white juries). Violence based on identity reveals larger social problems that must be addressed. Acknowledging and condemning hatred based on identity is crucial in creating a healthy democracy (again, look to the Civil Rights era for an example of this), even if we don’t say that a murder based on hatred should be punished more severely than a murder based on greed. To deny the motivation behind the crime is tacitly affirm that the motivation should be a source of social concern.

Hyman could, of course, have acknowledged the ugliness of homophobia, but argued that this type of hatred needs to be addressed independently of determining sentences for individual crimes. But Hyman’s entire commentary implies that hatred of homosexuals is a nonissue altogether. Why? Because it’s much more comfortable to ascribe these crimes to motivations that don’t hit so close to home. Hyman’s a rich man. He doesn’t need to mug a 100-pound college student for drug money. He can comfortably place Shepherd’s killers and their motivation outside his personal experience. Their act is actually more dispicable when it becomes a crime of property, given the tendency of conservatives to equate money with goodness.

Recognizing the particular ugliness of killing someone simply for who they are would cut too close to the bone for Hyman. It’s a motivation that suggests an uncomfortable kinship between himself and those who tortured Shepherd to death. Beneath the façade of egalitarianism, Hyman’s commentary mocks the whole idea that hatred of homosexuals is a social problem, or even a bad thing. It reveals that the difference between Hyman and someone like Fred Phelps, the man who demonstrated at Shepherd’s funeral and preaches that gay men and women are destined for Hell, is a matter of degree, not of type.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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