This article originally appeared at Salon on October 26, 1998.
Two weeks ago, Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die on the high plains of Wyoming simply because he was gay. On June 7, a similar attack was made against James Byrd Jr., a black man in Texas. Both murders were followed by outpourings of grief and public rage, expressed in editorial comments and from political pulpits across the nation. These were appropriate if extraordinary responses to crimes against ordinary citizens, whose untimely deaths would otherwise have been unremarkable because they are all too common.
It was the fact that the perpetrators and victims were set apart by communal bigotries, for which the crimes served as particularly violent expressions, that made the acts seem so important. The enhanced sense of human depravity that colored the public reactions to these incidents lies in our shared conviction that their nature as hate crimes made them an outrage to the nation’s sense of self, as well as a threat to its communal future. Well and good enough. These responses are signs of health in the body politic, the presence of a will to summon the better angels of our nature, and to keep the savagery that lurks beneath the surface of any civilized society firmly at bay.
But these expressions did not exhaust the public response to the two crimes. While libertarians and conservatives looked on in dismay, a coalition of radical and liberal activists, led by Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and other gay spokesmen, mounted the Capitol steps in Washington to pressure Congress into passing a bill that would extend existing federal hate crimes legislation to also cover the categories of gender, sexual orientation and handicapped status, and to make all such crimes easier to prosecute. They were joined in the call by the president himself.
Legal concerns were immediately voiced by nonparticipants about the civil liberties implications of the proposed legislation. Probing the intentions of any perpetrator, and especially those involved in crimes against victims who were already the targets of community prejudice, posed troubling issues. For example: the temptation offered to aggressive prosecutors to postulate such intentions where none might exist. In a sobering column, George Will recalled a recent example of perverse legal reasoning when applying the hate crime standard. In 1989, a white female jogger was raped and beaten into a coma by a gang of black and Hispanic youths on a “wilding” rampage. The act was not deemed a “hate crime” by prosecutors, and the perpetrators did not suffer enhanced penalties under the law, “because they also assaulted Hispanics that evening. They got more lenient treatment because of the catholicity of their barbarism.” Of course, the act they committed — rape — could be characterized as a hate crime in and of itself.
In the emotional melodrama unleashed by the murder of Matthew Shepard, the left has once again found its political oxygen. Temporarily thrown by feminist hypocrisies around the Clinton scandal, the left has recovered its balance with the prospect of once again rallying behind society’s victims and against their victimizers. The absence of conservatives and libertarians among the Capitol protesters only serves to confirm the enduring sense of righteousness that fuels the progressive agenda.
This politics of the left is what George Will calls “a sentiment competition,” which is “less about changing society than striking poses.” The proposed multiplication of hate-crime categories, which stipulate that some crime victims are more important than others, would be what Will calls “an imprudent extension of identity politics.” It would work against, not for, the principle of social tolerance.
A little more than a year before the attack on James Byrd in Texas, three white Michigan youngsters hitched a train ride as a teenage lark. When they got off the train, they found themselves in the wrong urban neighborhood, surrounded by a gang of armed black youths. One of the white teenagers, Michael Carter, 14, was killed. Dustin Kaiser, 15, was brutally beaten and shot in the head, but eventually survived. The 14-year-old girl (whose name has been withheld) was pistol-whipped and shot in the face after being forced to perform oral sex on her attackers.
Though the six African-Americans responsible for the deed were arrested and convicted, their attack was not prosecuted as a hate crime. Though they were all legally adults, ranging in age from 18 to 23, none of them received the death penalty. More to the point, most of the nation never knew that the crime had taken place. It was not reported on page one of the national press, and there was no public outrage expressed in national editorials or in the halls of Congress. Indeed, the few papers that reported the incident nationally did so on their inside pages.