Getting specific about random hate

I've never been a fan of hate crime legislation, because I think that crime is crime, and an attack by one person on another person is inherently heinous. If the fact that the victim belonged to a particular group was a motivating factor, that might make the attack especially heinous and depraved, and it is a factor which should be taken into account at sentencing. However, I don't think the victim's membership in a group or class should make an attack a special crime beyond the actual crime, as this invites all sorts of legal mischief, as well as endless demands for the inclusion of new groups into the special hate crime categories.

The latest group under consideration? The homeless:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tara Cole, who had been living on the streets of Nashville for more than three years, spent her last night alive sleeping on a boat ramp along the Cumberland River.

She was killed in the early hours of Aug. 11, when two unknown males pushed her into the river, according to witnesses. Other homeless people couldn't save her.

"She was one person, but it terrorized the whole homeless population," said Howard Allen, a homeless man who has helped organize a nightly vigil for Cole.

Authorities said the fatal attack was unprovoked, and homeless advocates say such violence is on the rise across the nation. Often the attackers are teenagers or young adults who are more affluent than their victims, experts say.

These "experts" also blame video games:
The increase in violence may be loosely linked to the increasing popularity of so-called "Bumfights" videos and imitation videos which show homeless people fighting one another and performing dangerous stunts, he said.

Four producers of the "Bumfights" videos pleaded guilty in June 2003 to charges of conspiracy to stage an illegal fight for their videos.

And a 20-year-old man in Los Angeles has been convicted for beating two homeless men with a baseball bat in August 2005 after watching a "Bumfights" video.

Internet site, which sells the videos, says their purpose is to call attention to poverty and violence. "Please do not miss the point of these videos! Educate yourself. Help those who are less fortunate. Spread love not hate," the Web site says.

Not all heed the warning. The Web site includes one viewer commenting, "Let the idiots kill each other for my amusement."

No one responded to an Associated Press e-mail to seeking comment for this story.

In cases where the perpetrator of attacks on homeless people is known, 76 percent are people 25 or younger, Stoops said. About 80 percent of attackers are white, he said.

"This might give an immature or drunk or high young adult encouragement to attack homeless people," Stoops said. "Were they to do this to any other minority group, there would be a national outcry."

What is a "minority group"? What is "homeless," and how is membership in this "group" to be defined? As to the "perpetrators of attacks on homeless people," I find myself wondering whether that definition includes attacks on homeless people by other homeless people. Might these "experts" be using a dishonest definition?

I don't know why, but if the above report -- and this NPR report -- are any indication, the race of the assailants seems to be of more interest than the race of the victims, and seems related to the push for adding a new "minority" to the already encumbered roll:

Police described the assailants as a group of young white males and say they used baseball bats and sticks to beat homeless men sleeping in three separate locations. The brutality of the attacks -- one of which was captured on surveillance video -- has stunned the city, which has recently won praise for its treatment of the homeless. The incidents have also renewed calls to make attacks against the homeless a hate crime under federal law.
While it should go without saying that an unprovoked attack -- by anyone -- on a total stranger for his status of living in the street (or being inebriated) is an outrage, I'm wondering just how federal laws might arrive at a legal definition of homeless minority group status for hate crime purposes. Many of the people we assume are homeless are not in fact homeless; they're just spending most of their time on the street and have poor hygiene, suffer from mental illness, or are visibly intoxicated. Would the law create a special group based purely on economic status? Or on the lack of a legal address? Or the status of being unwashed or intoxicated? If a landlord evicts a filthy drunken tenant for not paying his rent, why should that fact make an attack on him a more serious crime than it would have been the day before the sheriff put him out on the street?

I'm sorry, but legal minority group status for "the homeless" does not make sense.

I've seen some very nasty, very dangerous-looking, aggressive panhandlers. Some of them have been known to go berserk and kill people who have done absolutely nothing to them. Why shouldn't their unprovoked attacks on the non-homeless also be hate crimes? Should it be a worse crime to attack someone who had just asked you for money than for him to attack you for not giving him money?

Is there an economic test for hate here? If a criminal happens to have more money than his victim, why does that indicate hate?

Why are we assuming that hate is even involved in these attacks? Suppose the teens who set upon the guy lying in the street in Fort Lauderdale were looking for kicks, and decided to club an anonymous "bum" nearly to death simply because they thought they could get away with it. I think people who would do something like that are severely sociopathic, and I think they deserve lengthy prison terms, but does it matter whether they "hated" an anonymous bum they had never met? Isn't it entirely possible that they didn't hate him at all? That they treated him the same way they might have treated some poor stray dog? I'm not sure "hate" is the right word for such behavior.

Would it be less "hateful" if the same group of kids deliberately singled out a well-dressed businessman for attack? Why? Suppose that in addition to administering a near-fatal clubbing, they took his wallet. Does that make the crime "better"? Less "hateful"? I think you could argue it was at least as hateful, and certainly it was more purposeful. Or does hate have to have more of a random element? But what is random? Isn't there an element of randomness in selecting any stranger as a victim? Had he not just happened to be there, he wouldn't have been selected, but I'm having conceptual difficulties with the idea that simply targeting the next person to come around the corner is any less or any more hateful than targeting the next "easy mark" to come around the corner. Most criminals, of course, select their victims based on the likelihood of a successful attack. In order to do this, criminals utilize a mental process which can only be called discrimination. Don't hate crime laws simply discriminate further, by making a judgment that some victims are better than other victims?

I'm against hate crime legislation, but I think that if we are going to have it, we have to be fair. And the only way I can see to be fair is to give randomness the same minority status as any other victim category. That's because crime victims can be divided into two groups: those who were attacked for a reason, and those who were attacked at random. Aren't random attacks generally seen as worse? I mean, if you're going to be hit over the head with a baseball bat, wouldn't you rather have it happen for a reason than because your attacker was simply lying in wait for the next person to come around the corner? And if this happened, wouldn't it have been because the criminal, by deliberately committing his crime at random, singled you out as a random person?

What better way of assigning people to a group than at random?

posted by Eric on 08.24.06 at 08:28 AM


I would have to agree as to what you were saying about the "randomness" of the victim. If the Klan were out to beat some Black people, they might choose the smaller, skinnier types as opposed to someone who is 6'5" and weighs 250.
Ultimately, being chosen for a crime that is based upon hate as opposed to financial gain is humiliating. If someone is yelling "You piece of trash homeless a**hole, Get a job!" while you're being beaten, instead of "give me the wallet" then it's degrading as hell. I have to agree that it should be done case-by-case at sentencing by the Judge instead of by "Hate Crime Legislature" but can you find Judges impartial enough to consider each case fairly? (I know that's their job but do you think they are fair 100% of the time?) I'm not here to give answers but to raise other questions to ponder. Ultimately, anyone living in a Democracy, where the majority rules, anyone who is a minority, in any minority group, whether it be the homeless or Hispanics or the Bisexual Midgets living in North Dakota can only wonder if proper justice is going to be done for them in the Judicial system, therefore you have Hate Crime Legislature. What those kids did was brutal and they deserve to pay more than if they just did it to eat their next meal.
Rich kids make me sick.....

Jim   ·  August 24, 2006 11:44 AM

I roughly agree with you that it is mostly the severity of the offence that matters. I can see intent playing a cause when there might be reason to believe that the severity was unintentional (ie - slap someone, they lose their balance and sustain a worse/fatal injury). I don't see how it would be the same or worse to redden someone's cheek with a slap due to prejudice than it is to punch or kick someone for other reasons.

For your example to have weight, it should be a crime to walk by someone and say the same. You also seem to be condoning beating someone for money when I am pretty sure you can rob people without physical injury. The violence would seem excessive to me. You also show your hand by condemning all rich kids rather than sick, twisted or brutal rich kids.

anomdebus   ·  August 24, 2006 3:13 PM

Intriguing post!

IMO hate crimes are those crimes which are intended by the criminal to terrorize a particular group. For instance, not just an assault but one that is intended to scare a particular group not directly involved in the assult (Klan assaults come to mind).

There should not be separate laws, but extenuating circumstances that allow a judge to determine what the criminal's intent was and punish accordingly. If this were the case, we would not need various minority laws. A prosecutor would need to prove that the criminal intended was targeting a group with the intent to terrorize them.

Note: as I re-read this, I dislike the word 'terrorize' due to it's wide misuse over the past few years, but I can't think of a better word.

Taps   ·  August 25, 2006 8:52 AM

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