I've come to the conclusion that very often, we really don't understand the true meaning of the words we use. Specifically, "love" and "hate." We use the same word to describe our devotion to God, parents, spouse, children, friends, and country that we use to describe our fascination with a television show or a flavor of ice cream. We will use the same term of derision for an opposing sports team that we do for terrorists, Hitler, and "people who talk at the theater." (Sorry, I couldn't resist invoking the words of Shepherd Book from Firefly.) I believe that, on occasion, this causes us to lose proper perspective on some issues.
For instance, back in November California voters had the opportunity to vote for or against Proposition 8 on the ballot, which was an amendment stating that marriage would only be recognized as the union of one man and one woman. Opponents of the bill urged voters to "vote no on Proposition H8," because it's generally easier to gain support for your side if you can convince the moderate people that your opponents are hateful people. Granted, the proposition had outlined no legal penalties for anyone, threatened no one with violence, specified no person as being of a lower class, but if you supported it for any reason then you were labeled as hateful. More recently, we have had large gobs of evidence that certain celebrity bloggers have more openly hateful attitudes to Christian beauty pageant contestants than vice versa, but that really isn't what I wanted to write about.
In recent days, Congress has been debating federal hate crime legislation. The idea behind "hate crime" is that people who are convicted of a crime receive greater penalties if they are shown to have a strong prejudice of some sort against the victim. The focal point for this legislation is the late Matthew Shephard, a gay college student who was found beaten to death on the side of a road. The two perpetrators were caught, convicted, and are serving what hopefully will be the rest of their lives behind bars. Many supporters of hate crime laws point to this case as a strong reason why hate crimes deserve attention. Largely ignored is the fact that the perpetrators were both strung out on methamphetamines and likely would have assaulted anyone they came across to get money for more drugs. (The killers have admitted this.)
Here's my problem with hate crime laws, and it has nothing to do with Matthew Shephard. Like I said, I believe his killers deserve a lifetime of jailtime, at the very least. But would the hate crime proponents feel the same way if the killers were gay, and Shephard wasn't? What if he had been black? What if he had been a white man attacked by two black men? What if it were Christian-on-Muslim murder? Or atheist-on-Christian? Or Star Wars fans on Star Trek? My point is that any type of murder or assault is a hate crime, because the action is hateful. Are we going to impose greater penalties for a person's supposed bias when he/she commits a crime?
Well, alright, we already do, sort of. That's why there is a distinction between first-, second-, and third-degree murder and manslaughter. They take into account clear evidence of malice and intent. Our legal system recognizes the difference between a crime of passion and the well-planned bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building. But we reach into dangerous territory when we presume to read the mind of a criminal to find particular biases that we want to punish. Is it dangerous because dangerous criminals shouldn't have the book thrown at them? No. It's dangerous because our legal system is founded on the principle of equal protection under the law. That means that the killer of a skinhead, the killer of a gay man, the killer of an abortion clinic doctor, and the killer of an eight-year-old girl all deserve the same conviction. Those victims deserve the same amount of justice. When we begin to punish a killer more because his victim is gay, or black, or...different...we aren't far away from beginning to enforce the thoughtcrime that George Orwell envisioned in 1984. When we create a special class of citizen that deserves more legal protection than "normal" people, we invite abuse. We invite Perez Hilton to say whatever he wants--and potentially to make whatever threats he wants--about Carrie Prejean, because his beliefs are special, and hers aren't. In an attempt to compensate a class of people, we tacitly encourage the abuse of another class. Our whole system of social and political discourse begins to crumble, because now, if you disagree, then someone will decide that you also hate. And that allows us to view our fellow principled objectors not as misguided, but as a threat.
In the end, we open the door to create an environment where hating becomes easier, not harder. The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure that thoughts and opinions cannot be criminalized, only actions. The Nazis weren't convicted at Nuremburg because they hated Jews; they were convicted because of what they did to Jews. When we punish opinions, and not actions, we begin to create a society that inherently stifles free thought, debate, and expression. And that hurts us all. Hurting an entire society with a legal opinion...maybe that could be a hate crime.