Over the past several years, we have witnessed a rash of violent hate crimes across America. The litany of names has become familiar. Along with the brutal, hate-motivated murders of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, and Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama, hate-motivated attacks continue to strike fear into the hearts of many different communities. Particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, hate-based attacks upon Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs increased at a frightening rate.
According to the FBI Hate Crimes Statistics released in November 2009 (required under the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act), hate crimes are at their highest level since 2001. The report tallied 7,783 bias-motivated incidents, a two percent increase over the 7,624 crimes reported in 2007. The report detailed over 1,500 religion-based offenses with 1,013 of them (over 66%) directed against Jews and Jewish institutions. The 2008 statistics also report the highest number of crimes directed at black people, gay men and lesbians since 2001.
Opponents argue that hate crimes laws are violations of First Amendment protections, but these laws do not target speech; rather, they target the criminal action that derives from the speech. Many also claim that criminal action is already punishable by law under the criminal code. But, it is important to recognize that hate crimes work like terrorism: although there may be a single victim, hate crimes target and terrorize an entire community. For instance, if a Jewish person is attacked because he or she is a Jew, a threatening message is sent to the entire Jewish population in that community: if we find Jews, we will attack them. It is this terror that extends beyond the ordinary crime, that hate crimes punishes.
While hate crime law cannot eliminate bigotry, legislation serves as a deterrent to those individuals who choose to act on their hatred by imposing stricter penalties against the perpetrators of these crimes. Equally as important, by collecting accurate information about these hate crimes, the government and non-governmental organizations can better plan and program educational activities to combat hatred. Although the stricter punishment is critical, the goal of hate crimes laws is often tied to the idea of educating perpetrators, law enforcement officers, and the general public about the scourge of hate in our society.