Chrs wrote a post about hate crimes some time ago, and, while the post itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it got me thinking about the topic. After mulling it over for a couple of weeks, I’ve surprised myself by coming to the conclusion that, yes, hate crime laws are probably a good idea.
Motives are relevant because they affect the likelihood that the person will commit a similar crime in the future. A crime of passion is generally a response to a very unusual situation that is not likely to recur, and it can thus be punished more leniently. When the passion in question is the indiscriminate hatred of any and all members of a given group, though, that’s a different story. A man who flies into a homicidal rage when he finds his wife in bed with his best friend is obviously less of a menace to society than is someone who flies into a homicidal rage every time he sees a black/white/Jew/homosexual/Muhammad cartoon/whatever. People who can be moved to violence by such an everyday experience are dangerous, probably more dangerous than your average violent criminal.
When I say I support hate crime legislation, I should specify that I’m talking only about criminal behavior which happens to be motivated by open-ended hatred, not about the idea that such hatred or the expression thereof should itself be a crime. “Hate speech” laws are a very bad idea and are carried to outrageous extremes in some countries, going so far as to outlaw unpopular opinions about morality or history — punishing people who say that homosexuality is evil, for example, or that the Holocaust never happened. Holocaust denial laws are especially ridiculous — they’re like defamation laws in reverse, declaring the Nazis guilty and forbidding anyone to say that they’re innocent. (Hmmm… Does that mean Holocaust deniers are guilty of “anti-defamation”?) Aside from being tyrannical, such censorship is probably counterproductive; suppressing an opinion or movement by force just encourages people to think there must be something to it.