Sunday, May 13, 2007

Every year around Mother’s Day, I often think of my Mamma Jean. With nine children, she managed our large household by forcing us to respect the rules. They included the U.S. Constitution, the Ten Commandments and rest she made up.

Some of the rules made plain sense like “don’t throw stones at people because they may hit you back.” Others, governing respect for each other, love and hate, were a little stricter. We were definitively taught to respect those with whom we disagreed and to love everyone as children of God. But, we were forbidden to use the word hate, let alone hate anyone as she believed it could lead to violence.

Those homespun rules are still relevant in debates taking place in Washington, D.C. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 1592), which would expand the federal hate crime statue to include crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The bipartisan bill was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 237-180. But the legislation’s sponsors are having a hard time celebrating because some people are calling for the White House to veto the bill.

Critics say the bill would punish people for what they think. They argue it is a violation of the First Amendment and could “stifle religious expression.” Some have even accused the House of turning law enforcement officials into “thought police.”

I say: Think whatever you want. Hate whomever you want. I don’t have to respect you for your bigotry, and you’re even free to feel it. But you are not allowed in the name of hate to harass, murder, rape, assault or victimize innocent people.

When a young man is tied to a fence post and beaten to death, this is not freedom of expression, it’s murder. When someone sexually violates a transgender youth because he lived his life as a man while having the genitalia of a woman, it is not freedom of expression but rape. Extinguishing a cigarette on a man because he is congenitally disabled is not freedom of expression, it’s assault. Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Eric Crook Mallock were not victims of freedom of expression, but of hateful action. That is what this legislation would punish. A companion Senate bill (S. 1105) would make these violent acts federal crimes.

Why isn’t it enough to punish hate crime perpetrators under the existing statutes covering crimes they have committed? Why must we make distinctions between crimes motivated by hate versus those motivated by greed, or jealousy or revenge? Why is it worse to kill a man because he is homosexual than it is to kill him because he is sleeping with your wife? Murder is murder. Rape is rape. Assault is assault. We should punish people for what they do, not for what they think while doing it.

At least, that is what opponents of hate crimes legislation argue. But tying criminal penalties to the state of mind of the perpetrator at the time of the crime is not new. It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. Intent matters. Motivation matters. Precedent upon precedent has been set to justify using state of mind as a factor in sentencing guideline.

Disagree with that if you must, but realize the consequences of your position. If motivation, intent or state of mind is not considered when establishing sentencing guidelines, the woman who kills her husband for the insurance money receives the same sentence as the woman who kills her husband because she didn’t know he was allergic to shellfish. No rational person could argue that would be just.

All violent crime is tragic, and the perpetrators must be punished. The murders of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena told the homosexual and transgender communities they are never safe, that they should be scared, because it could happen to them. While we cannot take away that fear, we can say as a society that we find hatred, bigotry and prejudice abhorrent.

Hate crimes disseminate fear and intolerance. And in an open democracy, we should take a firm stance against giving a license to who oppose homosexuality to create an atmosphere of hate that often leads to violence. Hate crimes have far more devastating consequences than other random violent crimes, and should, therefore, carry greater penalties.

Hate crimes legislation is not a modern phenomenon. The first hate crimes legislation in this country was passed against lynching. There were laws against lynching blacks in the South, but those laws were rarely enforced, necessitating federal intervention. Unfortunately, because of lax enforcement of existing state laws, federal hate crimes legislation is still necessary. Just ask the family and friends of Brandon Teena.

Brandon was raped days before he was murdered. When he reported the rape, the Nebraska police did nothing. But his case is not the only reason it is necessary. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading homosexual civil rights organization, reports that while the average person has a 1-in-18,000 chance of being murdered, the chance a transgender individual will be murdered is 1-in-12.

In 2006, the Anti-Violence Project reports there were 486 hate crimes in New York City alone against homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. A problem so prevalent should not be ignored.

The U.S. Senate cannot bury its head in the sand. It should follow the House and pass this legislation. President Bush should reject the lame arguments by some of his political supporters and just sign it. We can’t bring back the dead, but the living can show those who have died and those still suffering that we will protect them.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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