Words just don’t have meanings they once did. We have a gift for abusing and discounting the language. “Hate” was once one of the most powerful words in the language. We’ve reduced it to a footnote on a legal bill of indictment.
When some crimes are so awful that even words won’t do, we try to add emphasis, like saying it in italics or capital letters. Eventually, even the italics and capitals are reduced to fine print in the public consciousness.
Calling certain acts “hate crimes” is a meaningless sop to public opinion. All murder is a hate crime, whether in Florida or Oklahoma. Sometimes, the hate is premeditated hate; sometimes, it’s hate only in the moment of the act. Murder has been a hate crime since Cain slew Abel and Romulus killed Remus, the ultimate expression of hate. Adding the prefix doesn’t make one murder more deadly than another. Corpses feel neither pain nor rebuke. The hate, being a thought, isn’t a crime, but a sin. The state punishes the act; the sin is condemned in a moral code to be punished by a higher law.
The death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in a struggle to the death with George Zimmerman, was never classified as a “hate crime,” though his death was remarked by many as the crime of the century. When a jury, sifting through the evidence adduced over a trial of several weeks, decided that the death, though sad and unfortunate, was not a crime under the law, the verdict was called a hate crime.
Some crimes aren’t regarded as hateful in the law. When Chris Lane, a young white man and an Australian student at East Central Oklahoma University, was shot in the back on a jog along a quiet residential street, and a young black man who boasted that he hated white folks was charged with murder, the cops and the district attorney decided there was nothing about it hateful enough to make the hate list. Just your routine neighborly death by murder. One of the suspects was conveniently identified as “white” because he’s the son of a white mother and a black father (like the president).
The idea of making the hate a crime followed a particularly gruesome murder in tiny Jasper, Texas, 15 years ago, when three white men spent much of the night drinking beer with one James Byrd Jr., a black man, and decided that it would be a hoot to tie him to the back of their pickup and drag him to his death. The wanton brutality of it shocked the nation and an unrepentant Lawrence Russell Brewer, may his name live in infamy, was quickly arrested, tried, convicted and treated to a ride on the busy Texas needle. The state spent neither time nor mercy on him.
The obsession with race in America has remarkable staying power, fed by jealousy, envy and the baser human emotions, and because it’s a tempting pimping moment for demagogues. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who pimped the Trayvon Martin tragedy with the guile of the aluminum-siding salesman that he is, rations his outrage. He says only that killing Chris Lane was something to be “frowned on.” Frowned on? You frown on a loud burp with guests at the dinner table. Shooting an innocent man in the back deserves more than a preacher’s frown. (The distinguished Chicago cleric did say, however, that he was praying for the Lane family.)
The timing of a presidential teaching moment would be doubly welcome in the anniversary week of Martin Luther King’s own great teaching moment, when he spoke eloquently and directly to the conscience of the nation. The president was once a constitutional law professor, but there’s more that he should talk about than mere parsing of the law.
He could tell young black men something they won’t hear from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He could tell them there’s more to Martin Luther King than the name of a street, a holiday in January or a statue on the Mall. The young gang bangers in Oklahoma, like those everywhere, might not listen the first time, even to a black president quoting an iconic black American hero. The president will have to tell them again and again and again. Teaching can be hard and thankless work.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.