It’s a scene played out all too frequently: Gunfire shatters a neighborhood’s quiet routine. Screams echo through its streets or the halls of one of its apartment complexes. Sirens wail. An ambulance hauls away the bodies, a police cruiser hauls away a handcuffed suspect or suspects. Later: A trial, a verdict, a sentence. Some lives are lost, others forever changed.
On Tuesday, February 10, that story line came to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Three young people — Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha — lie dead. Their suspected killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, stands charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
It’s an ugly thing. Unfortunately, instead of mourning the victims and seeking justice versus their killer, many seem caught up in disputes over motive. Were these three killed over a parking space? Or were they killed because they were Muslims?
If the latter, some assert (and, unfortunately, have the legal power to back the assertion with charges) that the victims enjoy special status because their murders constitute a “hate crime.”
That assertion and the laws associated with it go 180 degrees against the US Constitution, and against the goal of a just social order, in several ways.
Under “hate crimes” laws, if a victim belongs to any of various “protected classes,” and if the criminal’s motive is demonstrably connected to the victim’s status as a member of such a class, additional charges may be laid and additional penalties or punishments levied.
Those conditions are repugnant to the 14th Amendment’s requirement that all Americans enjoy equal protection of the law. They designate some victims as more valuable than others, and some criminals as more culpable than others, with respect to the same crimes.
“Hate crimes” laws also do damage to the 1st Amendment’s enshrinement of our rights to think, speak and worship as we please. Only the violent act may be prohibited. The underlying idea, no matter how ugly or hateful, is sacrosanct. While ugly and hateful ideas are rightly subject to criticism and social pressure and preferencing (who but another Ku Klux Klansman wants to make friends with a Klansman?), “ThoughtCrime” must never be forbidden, let alone punished, by law.
The blood of Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha cries out from the ground. It cries for justice versus their killer, not for vengeance versus their killer’s beliefs or motives. We the living should heed that cry. #everylifematters.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.
- “Hate crimes undermine the notion of equality,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Libby, Montana Western News, 02/11/15
- “‘Hate Crime’ Means ThoughtCrime — #everylifematters,” by Thomas L. Knapp, Muscatine, Iowa Journal, 02/15/15