Laws against “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes”

On the 17th of August 2019, an OpEd by Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, in which he touted a proposal that New York state create a new “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes” law, popped up as one of the lead opinion pieces at CNN online.

Note: I can’t tell when it was originally posted — when I first read it, it was labeled as having been ‘updated’ on the 17th; but the next day it also seemed to have been ‘updated’ that day, as well.

I don’t log in to CNN through a personal account, and they don’t make it easy to post comments without one.  Since this was a proposal by the Governor of New York that the government of New York should do something, I instead wrote a letter to The New York Times (on the presumption that they would consider a policy proposed by their own governor to be of some significance), in which I referenced the CNN OpEd and questioned why such a law is necessary.

It turns out that the original announcement of the proposal had been made in a speech shortly after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, several weeks before the CNN OpEd; and the NYT had reported on that proposal in a story by Vivian Wang, also posted a few weeks after the speech (and a few days before the CNN OpEd — online on the 15th of August and in the print edition on the 16th; I don’t know what section of the web-site the story appeared in originally, but in the print edition it was on page A18.  I don’t remember seeing it prominently displayed and I had missed it).

The NYT chose not to publish my letter, nor have I seen any others on the subject (and there was no reader comment thread associated with the original online story).  Maybe they thought his proposal was as pointless as I did…

17 August 2019

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just penned an OpEd for CNN in which he touted a proposal that New York state “pass a national precedent: a Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act.”  He went on to explain:

For anyone who launches a mass attack and kills on the basis of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, the penalty should be the same as it is for other terrorist crimes: up to life without parole.

One might reasonably ask: what, currently, is the penalty in New York for someone who “launches a mass attack and kills” — on any basis at all, regardless of whether or not or they were motivated by some hatred from Governor Cuomo’s laundry list of special categories?  If the answer is not, already, “up to life without parole“, then the problem would seem to be not a lack of laws against “Domestic Terrorism” or “Hate Crimes” but a casual and wholly inadequate attitude toward dealing generally with those who would destroy innocent human lives.

If, on the other hand, the punishment for attacking and killing people is already — as I would fully expect — “up to life without parole“, then what, exactly, does a new “Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act” add, beyond  empty rhetoric and craven virtue signaling?

End Note:  I understand and sympathize with the argument that some things are worth doing for purely symbolic reasons.  I have made that argument, myself, in other contexts.  If Governor Cuomo had made that argument — that we should pass a “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes” law purely as a statement of principle, as a proclamation of moral outrage at such heartless brutality– I would still demur from his assessment but I would respect his position.  But that wasn’t the argument he made — he asserted that, somehow, such a new law was necessary as a purely practical matter, because the current punishment for such behavior was not severe enough.

To be clear, the reason I would object to passing such a law as a statement of principle is not that I don’t think “hate crimes” (or domestic terrorism) are worth condemning but that I think “non-hate” crimes are equally worth condemning.  It is all well and good to proclaim that certain crimes are so heinous as to elevate them to a special and higher category of moral importance.  But, by doing so, you are also, by definition, proclaiming that the crimes you omit from such special treatment are, therefore and somehow, of an inferior moral importance.

To be blunt, assault and murder, and even the lesser crime of theft, are crimes borne of an utter disregard for the moral status — for the humanity — of the victim.  To steal from someone or to assault someone or to murder someone, you must view their needs, their rights, and their dignity as, at the least, beneath your notice and, at most, as wholly inconsequential and irrelevant.  You must view those victims not as self-justified moral entities, worthy of your respect and your forbearance, but as mere objects of your convenience, to be used and discarded at your whim as you pursue your own vainglorious ends.  That is, to victimize people in those ways is to treat them with utter disdain.

Is not such disdain, in and of itself, the real moral offense?  Does it really matter whether the source of such disdain is “hate” or is, instead, “merely” malice or indifference or or a simple solipsism?  And would you really declare, to someone who was the victim of malice or of indifference or of solipsism, that the pain and the indignity they were forced to bear were of a lesser degree and of a lesser moral import — that they, somehow, matter less and require less sympathy and outrage — simply because their tormentor didn’t “hate” them, or because their tormentor hated them for some reason that didn’t appear on some special “Hate Crime” umbrage list?

© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell

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