Hate Crimes

September 3, 2015

Photo: Christina Berube, BAHS

I’m at least a second degree news addict and so I find it pretty easy to get discouraged on a regular basis.  Actually I guess it’s almost all the time.  Violence is everywhere and all the time.  And with the exception of totalitarian driven genocides in several countries within Africa and the Middle East, it seems to me that this country is experiencing internal violence at a level greater than ever before in my lifetime, and at a level higher than those of other, “civilized” countries.  But I may only be perceiving things this way.  I have no hard data in front of me, and I have done zilch in terms of research. 

We also struggle as a nation with our perception of those who commit vicious crimes against others.  We have established a fork in the road at the entrance to official consequences for being found guilty.  One turn goes to prison or even death, while the other rides a cart named “not guilty by reason of insanity” to destinations including secure psychiatric facilities and perhaps prisons.  Not to sound flip, but does this mean we feel some murders are not acts of insanity?  Do we believe that it is within the realm of being “normal” that we can hurt and destroy one another?  How normal?  Consider what many soldiers have to experience.  Supported pretty openly by values and messages all directed to common good and national defense and defense of freedom and saving other counties and their citizens, they are also exposed to more subtle messages intended to desensitize them as human beings and rationalize their actions.  Think “yellow peril,” “slant eyes” and “gooks.”  Despite this one-two of support and minimizing, many thousands of our veterans end up with terrible emotional conditions, addictions and/or mental illness after wars. 

So if civilians are murdering and destroying at all-time rates while too many soldiers suffer as a consequence of their participation in the killing of foreign soldiers (remember, the word “murder” is not used when it comes to the military ending of a life), what does that say about us as a nation?  One way out of this confusion could be to conclude with certainty that those civilians who murder are evil.  Black and white—there is evil in the world, and those murderers are evil.  This might satisfy some people’s values and their need for understanding and closure.  This interpretation definitely has appeal for many of us by way of letting us off the potential hook—we’re not evil!  We’re different from them, at the very least in terms of restraint.

The term “hate crimes” has me similarly confused.  It is generally applied to violent crimes against people due to the victims having a general characteristic that the criminal targeted, like race, sexual orientation, or being homeless.  More than a decade ago I was asked to give support to an initiative in Maine intended to make crimes against people experiencing homelessness an official hate crime.  While still unconvinced that what I decided was right, I declined.  There were at least two core reasons: I knew of homeless adults killing others, and I was fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion of somehow categorizing some assaults as more heinous than others.  What about an attack on an 85-year-old woman?  Child abuse?  I felt then, and still do, that violence perpetrated by anyone stronger or with significant advantages over any victim was cowardly, hateful and wrong.

I am not clear about why I decided to write this piece.  It’s certainly not about conveying useful information or brighter ideas.  I guess I simply want to challenge others to consider the amount of violence in our country and then decide to try to do something about it.  Maybe we can drive less aggressively.  We can watch our language and choose better words.  We can listen more and judge less.  We can pause, and maybe reflect.  We can be more respectful to others (and ourselves), and we can admit it when we are uncertain.  We can listen more carefully to political candidates’ statements and choices of words, and resist the inclination to yell “USA” when the exhortation is about moral superiority and smug certainty.  As hard as it may be to do, and as corny as the lyrics may now sound, we could try to follow the lyrics from The Youngbloods’ 1967 hit, “Get Together,” frequently described as a call for universal brotherhood.  That doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Let’s work together, even if in small ways, to reduce violence and the level of hatred present in this country.