Burning questions about hate crimes

cross burning2Given Jeff Jacoby's consistent opposition to hate crime laws and legislations, it's interesting he's so worried about it now. Posted by Michael at 2:32 pm on February 15, 2006

We are in a lull, right now, on coverage of the Baptist churches that are burning in Alabama. Wire services are providing most of the coverage with, as I have noted, some coverage inside the news sections of major papers such as the New York Times. I stand by my conclusion that (a) it is mighty strange that the arsonists are driving past dozens of other churches of various brands in order to torch the Baptist churches that they are choosing to torch (are the burned churches simply more secluded?) and (b) this story would be receiving much bigger play if they where all African-American churches, instead of a 50-50 mix.

This leads us to the Boston Globe column by cultural conservative Jeff Jacoby, about which several readers (formal hat tip, yet again, to Ted Olsen at the CT blog) have dropped me notes. I think it deserves to be pulled out of the comments section and looked at a bit.

It is hard to deny the logic of his first two paragraphs:

Suppose that in 2005 unknown hoodlums had firebombed 10 gay bookstores and bars in San Francisco, reducing several of them to smoking rubble. It takes no effort to imagine the alarm that would have spread through the Bay Area's gay community or the manhunt that would have been launched to find the attackers. The blasts would have been described everywhere as ''hate crimes," editorial pages would have thundered with condemnation, and public officials would have vowed to crack down on crimes against gays with unprecedented severity.

Suppose that vandals last month had attacked 10 Detroit-area mosques and halal restaurants, leaving behind shattered windows, wrecked furniture, and walls defaced with graffiti. The violence would be national front-page news. On blogs and talk radio, the horrifying outbreak of anti-Muslim bigotry would be Topic No. 1. Bills would be introduced in Congress to increase the penalties for violent ''hate crimes" -- no one would hesitate to call them by that term -- and millions of Americans would rally in solidarity with Detroit's Islamic community.

However, the burning of 10 Baptist churches -- black and white -- is causing a bit of confusion, especially in the mainstream press. Some of this is based on history, which Jacoby notes is more complex than many think. Is it a hate crime when a black arsonist torches a black church? What if a black arsonist torches a white church? What if a white arsonist torches a white church?

But I think the media are doing the right thing in declining to speculate about the motives of the arsonists. They may simply be wild guys who, after a few beers, like to burn churches that are off the beaten track. Thus, it would help if the media told us more about where these churches are. Is there some kind of location pattern?

Perhaps these guys -- the police say it's two "bosom buddies" -- are mad at Baptists for some personal reasons. That is where speculation has to stop, until police tell us more. These crimes do not fit the racial "hate crime" template and it is too soon to speculate about another template, as if there needs to be one.

Cover the crimes, with every detail possible. The crimes are bad enough. One of the details is that the churches are all Baptist. Thus it makes sense, as reporter Tom Gordon of the Birmingham News has done, to start talking to local Baptist officials. I would sure hope the police are digging into that angle in this story.

As for reader comments that conservatives rarely fret about "hate crimes," let me note how Jacoby ends his column:

... (Perhaps) it is progress of a sort that, this time around, the media are keeping in check the urge to cry ''Racism!" But real progress will come only when we abandon the whole misguided notion of ''hate crimes," which deems certain crimes more deserving of outrage and punishment not because of what the criminal did, but because of the group to which the victim belonged. The burning of a church is a hateful act regardless of the congregants' skin color. That some people bend over backward not to say so is a disgrace.

To which I say, "Ditto." I don't think that a crime is worse because of what someone was thinking at the moment they committed a crime. You enforce the law to its full extent and you seek justice. I would feel the same way if some hateful bigots had torched 10 buildings connected to the Metropolitan Community Church. But do you think that story would be getting more blue-zip-code attention? Would that be a good thing?

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