Enough!Anne Breton January/February 2000 Cassie Bernall was a Columbine High School student, shot to death by another Columbine High School student in one of this country's worst school shootings. In America we don't expect to give up our lives for our faith, let alone in high school. But Cassie did. The killers selected their victims, it seems, based largely on their Christianity, race, or social status.
If Cassie Bernall died because she was a Christian, then that places her murder under the category of a "hate crime."
You could well argue that most crime is motivated by hate, and you would be right. The distinction comes in what is the underlying cause of the hatred. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization established in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination, says of a hate crime: "A criminal act thus becomes a hate crime whenever a person, or that person's property has been threatened or assaulted in some way simply or primarily because of his or her membership in a particular social category--that is, because of the assailant's prejudice against the victim's race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender, age, or sexual orientation."(1)
The FBI has been tracking hate crimes only since 1990 and, as it readily admits, its statistics are far from complete. Ever since the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act was passed, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program has been trying to develop and put in place a national system to collect statistics on bias-motivated crime. However, many agencies do not or will not submit data reporting crimes of bias, and some of those that do submit limited data. And many victims of hate crimes are hesitant to contact police. Still, despite weak reporting, what the FBI has turned up is unsettling.
The last hate crimes statistics report released by the FBI was for 1997. In that report, of the 8,049 incidents, 4,710 of them were race-related. Religion was the second-largest category, with 1,385 reported. Bear in mind (1) that these are only the crimes reported to the FBI, (2) that they are the only crimes categorized as hate crimes (some crimes may fall under more than one heading and be reported under a different category), and (3) that the victims in these crimes may refer to more than one person per incident.
Hate Crime Prevention Act of 1999 (HCPA)-All Those in Favor
On the surface it may appear that hate crimes primarily affect the victim or the victim's group, but in reality hate crimes affect everyone. They are a form of domestic terrorism. The intimidation they accomplish is not focused on any one individual. A hate-related attack on an individual is a message to everyone in that individual's group. Some people believe that because of their very nature hate crimes should be punished even more vigorously than other crimes and their victims should receive greater consideration under the law.
"All Americans have a stake in effective response to violent bigotry. These crimes demand a priority response because of their special impact on the victim and the victim's community. Bias crimes are designed to intimidate the victim and members of the victim's community, leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable, and unprotected by the law. Failure to address this unique type of crime could cause an isolated incident to explode into widespread community tension. The damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents. By making members of minority communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups-and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them-these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities."(2)
Religious freedom, the privilege of practicing our religion according to our own belief system, is guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet in the space of one gunshot or one fatal beating or one bombing our religious liberty can be lost. The Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our religion, but it doesn't protect us from people who seek to deny us that right. Only after the fact does the Constitution offer us protection.
That's why some people argue that current hate crime prevention legislation is so important. First, it would place higher penalties on hate crimes, and second, it would give victims additional means to prosecute hate crimes if they run into a jurisdictional brick wall at the local or state level. Like the one Norman Rosenbaum tan into.
Norman's brother, Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne in Australia, was in New York researching his doctoral dissertation. "One of his friends once described my brother as a Hasidic 'Crocodile Dundee,' Norman Rosenbaum recalled recently, referring to the amiable Australian movie hero. Yankel was very outgoing, very affable. He had a dry sense of humor."(3)
He did until August 19, 1991, when an incident that had nothing to do with him suddenly had everything to do with him. It began when seven-year-old Gavin Cato was giving his cousin Angela a ride on his bike on the sidewalk near his home. Suddenly the driver of a car in the motorcade of Grand Rabbi Manachem Scheerson lost control of his vehicle and ran into Gavin, killing him and injuring Angela. That single tragic incident sparked race riots that consumed Brooklyn's Crown Heights area for four nights and resulted, among other things, in the death of Yankel Rosenbaum.
He was on his way to get a haircut when a mob caught sight of him. Screaming, "There's a Jew" and "Get the Jew," the mob surrounded Rosenbaum and began beating him. Then one of the attackers, Lemrick Nelson, stabbed him. Nelson was apprehended a few blocks away with a bloody knife in his pocket. The blood on the knife matched Yankel Rosenbaum's
Even so, to the dismay of the prosecution and Rosenbaum's family and friends, Lemrick Nelson was acquitted by a jury in state court in Brooklyn of Rosenbaum's murder. But Norman Rosenbaum would not be silenced. "Senators, representatives and presidential aids became regular targets of Rosenbaum's entreaties. He became a virtual fixture in demanding that U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno empanel a grand jury to continue an investigation stymied by Nelson's 1992 acquittal on state murder charges."(4) This lead, finally, to a November 1993 probe by the US Department of Justice to determine if Rosenbaum's civil rights were violated during the rioting. Nearly six years later, on February 10, 1997, a federal jury convicted Nelson (and Price, another defendant) for violating Rosenbaum's civil rights.
Currently 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted hate crime penalty-enhancement laws and most hate crimes are prosecuted at the state and local level. But in cases in which the local authorities cannot or will not prosecute a case there must be a backup position, enabling victims to appeal to the federal government for assistance in prosecuting hate crime cases.
"Right now, as it stands, under 18 U.S.C.Sec. 245, you need to be able to prove that the individual was attacked because of race, religion, color or national origin and they were attacked because they were engaged in a federally protected activity: they were voting, they were going to a restaurant, they were going to school. And if you cannot prove both things, then the federal government does not have jurisdiction," explains Michael Lieberman, Washington Council for the ADL. "So you have a case like Yankel Rosenbaum, where an individual was attacked because he was a Jew. He wasn't voting, he wasn't going to a restaurant, he was trying to escape from a mob that was trying to kill him.
"The government, in that case, had to argue that Yankel Rosenbaum was running down a street, those street are connected to other streets, those streets are connected to highways, highways cross interstate lines and therefore the federal government has jurisdiction; because you have the right to travel. That's ridiculous. No one should have to make that kind of jurisdictional argument in order for the federal government to be involved in that case."
If adopted, the HCPA would remove the unwieldy dual jurisdictional requirements of 18 U.S.C. 245 and permit prosecutions without having to prove that the victim was attacked because they were engaged in a federally protected activity as well as proving the motive of bias. It would also include cases in which the violence is because of the victim's real or perceived sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
Like most things in life, there is more than one side to the hate crimes issue. The pro-family organization Focus on the Family learned firsthand the potential dangers of hate crime legislation. They participated in an ad campaign in which ex-gays told homosexuals there was hope for change. After the brutal murder of University of Wyoming students Matthew Shepard, a homosexual man, Focus on the Family received many accusations that the ad campaign contributed to the anti-gay sentiment that killed Shepard.
A letter to James Dobson, Focus on the Family president, read: "The beating in Wyoming demonstrates that the lunatic fringe has taken license from your code words and intends to wreak violence upon the gay community. The blood of this young man, who committed no crime, is on your hands. You should be ashamed."(5)
The writer of the letter expressed views that were echoed on the Today show. Katie Couric, interviewing Elizabeth Birch, of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, asked Birch: "'Do you believe this ad campaign launched by some conservative groups really contributed somehow to Matthew Shepard's death?' Birch quickly replied, 'I do, Katie,' and said, 'They happen because people's minds have been twisted with cruel stereotypes about gay and lesbian people. And this ad campaign has been pumped out all summer presenting gay an lesbian people as defective, as less than, as not fully human.'"(6)
"Hate crime legislation creates classes of victims," said John Thomas, Focus on the Family's marriage and family policy analyst. "Some of the classes would get better treatment than others. Hate crime laws say that this victim is more important than another, yet the same crime was committed against both. No victim is more or less important. All are equal and should get the same treatment.
"It would be similar to advocating, for instance, that victims of crime should be treated differently based on income or social status. The concept is simply flawed and unjust. All victims of crime deserve fair and equal protection regardless of race, color, creed or sexual preference. Hate crimes laws elevate one victim's status over another. We don't need hate crime laws. The laws cover criminal acts already. What we need is for the laws in effect to be applied correctly.
"The bill's findings (Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998, S. 1529) argue that 'many states have no laws addressing violence based on the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability.'" But every single state has laws against violent attacks, period. The question is, should laws protect everyone equally, or should there be special classes of victims and increased punishments for harboring the wrong kind of thoughts?"(7)
There is also some concern that hate crime laws would become thought-police legislation, determining what is and isn't legal to believe and speak about. "Hate crimes legislation seeks to protect homosexuality," says Thomas. "If that type of law passes it's a logical extension that it will encroach on our freedom of speech. We've already witnessed how people of faith are vilified for simply stating that homosexuals can leave that lifestyle if they should choose to. So there is a legitimate concern that a federal hate crimes law might eventually be expanded to apply to any communication that homosexual advocates consider to be 'hate' speech, which is the label they gave the ad campaign." Thus our freedom of religion would be hampered if our moral views did not agree with the ones legislated.
Adding greatly to the concern is the nebulous definition of what constitutes a hate crime. "More than half of the 'hate crimes' reported by the Justice Department last year involved either 'intimidation' or 'simple assault,' neither of which necessarily involves physical touching."(8) So name-calling or speaking out publicly against a protected groups could result in federal prosecution were the vill to be passed. Many people are concerned that S. 1529 would seriously threaten pro-marriage advocates or those with religious views against homosexuality, as it would allow them to be prosecuted for those views. If they are now labeled as haters and credited with inciting violence, as in the incident in which James Dobson was accused of inciting Matthew Shepard's murderers, the proposed law might make those views an actual crime.
Whether you decide to support or oppose hate crimes legislation, there is still something you personally can do to prevent hate crimes from taking place. While it may be tempting to think that you and your community are exempt from the possibility of this type of terrorism, that is not the case. It is common to think that hate happens somewhere else. And until that "somewhere else" is in your town or your neighborhood or your family, it is never quite as important or as threatening. The fact is that it could happen anywhere, at any time. Given the high levels of religious bigotry and hatred in North America, it is not unlikely that a serious conflict could break out if these levels intensify. The expectations of the coming millennium are feeding some very scary pseudoreligious and race hate groups. We must be alert to the threat and prepared to counter it within the protections of the law.
Part of the problem is that it is all too east to ignore the danger until it is too late. As adults, as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, mentors, role models, we must take some responsibility for the children in our care. Our priorities, our values, and yes, our prejudices still be passed on to them. If we want to see tolerance, we must, without question, model tolerance. If we must be paranoid, let's be paranoid about the things that truly matter.
"If these kids were walking around that school in black trench coats, saying 'Heil Hitler,' why didn't somebody pay attention?" asked William Bennett, former education secretary, on a recent broadcast of Meet the Press, in reference to the Columbine High school shootings. "I guarantee you if little Cassie Bernall, the little girl who was asked, 'Do you believe in God?' and she said, 'Yes,' and then was blown away-if she and her friends had been walking through that school carrying Bibles, and saying, you know, 'Hail the Prince of Peace, King of kings,' they would have been hauled into the principal's office."(9)
Romanian-born American writer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, author of And the World Remained Silent, said, "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
"Once someone is victimized in a hate crime," says Jack Levin, Ph.D., director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston and coauthor of the book Hate Crimes, "that person naturally feels, 'Hey, everybody hates me.' I think it's up to the community, especially the members of the community in the perpetrator's groups, to destroy that idea. After a Black person is murdered in a vicious hate crime, Clacks march through the community in protest. It shouldn't be Blacks I should be Whites."
Whatever your response is to hate crimes legislation, you can make a difference in preventing hate crimes from happening. It is imperative that we educate our children about bigotry and hatred. They need to know how to recognize it and how to combat it. At the same time it is essential that we pay attention to our children. Education alone is not enough. There are influences at work in our society that will thwart principles anchored solely in education policies. We must pair education with personal guidance and instruction We must model the behavior we hope to see in the children we are responsible for. Doing this is a big step toward preventing hate crimes in the future.
Anne Breton is a freelance writer from Vermont.
(1) from website http://www.adl.org/default.htm.
(2) Statement of the Anti-Defamation League on Bias Motivated Crime and S.622, The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, May 11, 1999.
(3) Patricia Hurtado, "Victim Was More Than Just a Name," Newsday, Feb. 11, 1997, p. A-4.
(4) Bob Liff, "Brother's Dogged pursuit," Newsday, Aug. 12, 1994, p. A-4.
(5) Focus on the Family, Letter to Constituents, November 1998.
(6) L. Brent Bozell III, The Gay Left's Willing Mud-Slingers, Oct. 15, 1998.
(7) Steven A. Schwalm, "S. 1529, The Thought Crimes Bill."
(9) William Bennett, on Meet the Press, NBC, Apr. 25, 1999.