Last week in Chicago, a white special-needs teenager was held captive by four black youths. The victim was bound, gagged, tortured, forced to drink toilet water, partially scalped, and subject to racially and politically motivated verbal abuse. The perpetrators streamed portions of their violent savagery on Facebook.
After the victim escaped from his assailants and was found on the streets by a police officer, a Chicago police commander initially said he was unsure whether the attack constituted a hate crime — as if that distinction might calibrate the crime’s viciousness.
President Obama was likewise initially hesitant to label this cruelty as a racially motivated hate crime — which was odd given the president’s prior readiness to jump into and editorialize about racially charged cases such as those of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin.
Yet it is hard to imagine what additional outrages the Chicago youths might have had to commit to warrant hate-crime status. After public outcry, Chicago prosecutors — along with Mr. Obama — confirmed that the attack did indeed, in their opinion, qualify as a “hate crime.”
Many in the media still sought to downplay that classification.
“I don’t think it’s evil,” editorialized CNN anchor Don Lemon, who instead attributed the violence to the offenders’ problematic upbringing.
What are the lessons from all the verbal gymnastics concerning “hate crimes”?
Sadly, we are learning that the labeling of hate crimes has become so politicized and ill-defined that the entire concept is unworkable.
The idea of identifying hate crimes gained currency in the 1980s, when reformers wanted lighter penalties for most criminal offenses but also wished to increase punishment for criminal acts that were deemed racist, sexist or homophobic. So hate crimes emerged as new enhancements to criminal punishment, as a way to tack on stiffer penalties for affronts to liberal society at large.
The rationale for designating hate crimes relied on force multipliers in criminal sentencing — such as premeditation that can make murder a first-degree offense. But after years of confusion, how do we consistently and fairly define perceptions of bias or hate as a catalyst for criminal violence?
After all, crimes such as murder and rape are already savage and brutal by nature. Is the killer who shouts bigoted epithets more dangerous to society than the quiet sadist who first tortures his murder victim without comment?
It can be dangerous to redefine a single criminal act as a hate crime against society, given the incentives for manipulation and political distortion.
Recently, there arose a spate of reported fake hate crimes in which supposed victims complained that their race or religion earned them violent responses from bigots, suggesting a post-election epidemic of intolerance. Authorities often found that the victims had concocted their stories, either to enhance their political agendas and their own sense of victimization, or simply to win attention and perhaps compensation.
Again, who or what defines a hate crime?
When fanatical Army Maj. Nidal Hasan in 2009 slaughtered non-Muslim soldiers at Fort Hood — shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great”) as he mowed down his victims — was that a religiously driven hate crime? The politically correct Pentagon thought not. Instead, it labeled Hasan’s murderous rampage as “workplace violence.”
Progressives originally envisioned hate-crime legislation as focusing mostly on a white majority that presumably had a monopoly on prejudice. But FBI hate-crime statistics show that African-Americans commit a disproportionately large share of hate crimes.
The media usually associate religious hate crimes with offenses against Muslims, and warn against endemic “Islamophobia.” Yet statistically, Jews, not Muslims, are the far more frequent victims of religious hate crimes.
Americans can now reasonably wonder whether a reported hate crime might have been staged. In November, for example, a black church in Mississippi was spray-painted with “Vote Trump” graffiti and set afire. Nearly two months later, authorities charged a disgruntled African-American parishioner, not a supposed white supremacist, with the arson.
Sometimes hate-crime status is added to a crime not on the basis of clearly evident prejudice but based on the race of the offender and victim, as the political spin that follows the crime seeks to make larger indictments against society.
In our hypersensitive and litigious society, too many agendas have warped the once-noble idea of hate-crime legislation. It has become a fossilized relic of the 1980s that was well-intended, became incoherent and politicized — and now should be scrapped.
• Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.