Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

How do you square your disdain for hate crime laws as a way to punish one motivation more than another for the same horrendous act, with your wont to decry murders by Muslims as a sign of a larger idea of “terrorism,” which you evidently give more significance that just regular crime? It seems it would be more consistent to treat the killing in Woolwich the same as this knife murder last October in Swanley Village. Does the different motivation deserve different punishment? Saying one is “terror” – a heavy term in our new unfortunate parlance that justified our current wars – and one is “not terror” does not make sense if you think elevating one motive over another is wrong. You wrote this in the NYT back in 1999:

Indeed, our media’s obsession with “hate,” our elevation of it above other social misdemeanors and crimes, may even play into the hands of the pathetic and the evil, may breathe air into the smoldering embers of their paranoid loathing. Sure, we can help create a climate in which such hate is disapproved of — and we should. But there is a danger that if we go too far, if we punish it too much, if we try to abolish it altogether, we may merely increase its mystique, and entrench the very categories of human difference that we are trying to erase.

I think you may reason the same way with regard to terrorism, given your positions on Gitmo and the Af-Pak war. But claiming that crazies who do despicable things while shouting “Allah Akbar” are terrorists, while saying crazies who do despicable things while shouting “faggot” are just regular criminals refutes that very reasoning. Why is the murderer who was driven to kill James Byrd due to white supremacy different from the murderer driven to kill in Boston due to what he saw on YouTube?

That’s a good question. It’s not one I have engaged at length – my debate with Glenn Greenwald was not about that as such, but about other elements in his column. But first, a semantic but vital point. Terrorism is not violence committed by Muslims, as my reader wrote. It’s violence committed by Jihadists or Islamists most often against other Muslims.

The Woolwich butcher should be prosecuted for murder, in my view, in a civilian court. But most murders are not followed by the murderer hanging around asking for his photograph to be taken, his bloody hands still holding the butcher knives he used to behead and then mutilate a body. There is a pride in the evil that distinguishes this particular kind of barbarism, a pride that comes from religious certainty. There is also an implied threat: “You will never be safe.” When it is allied with organizations that attempt to randomly terrorize communities by violence, I think that’s worth noting. If only as a descriptive term.

Then there is the religious element, which can also be involved in hate crimes, of course, but not quite as explicitly as in, say, the Woolwich attack. What religion does is justify what would be unjustifiable by any other argument. It ups the ante as far as brutality is concerned. It empowers individuals with divine sanction to do anything –  a particularly dangerous streak in human nature. And it may intensify brutality in ways that might justify a different category in the law. But I need to think on this some more. And I’m grateful for that challenge to my own consistency here.