Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hate crimes

The recent shooting spree by a gunman who belonged to a white supremacist group at the Oak Creek, WI, Sikh temple is the latest, high profile hate crime. Hate crimes, by definition, are un-Christian. Christians believe that God is love and hate is the antithesis of love. Religious identity does not define the scope of God's love. God loves Sikhs as much as God loves Christians or any other group people. Targeting people who have gathered for communal worship seems an especially egregious crime and moral offense.
Furthermore, random violence targeted, for any reason, at the innocent is always wrong. Jesus, whom Christians believe innocent of not only criminal behavior but also of sin, died when he became the target of violence. His call for people to live in love threatened a political system premised on exploitation and hierarchy.

However, describing events at the Oak Creek temple as an act of terrorism unhelpfully conflates two different types of problems. Not all hate crimes are terrorist acts. For example, the Nazi genocidal campaign against Jews and other undesirable was not a terrorist campaign.

Terrorism, according to Harvard scholar Louise Richardson has seven defining characteristics (What Terrorists Want (New York: Random House, 2006), pp. 4-7):

1.    The perpetrator(s) must have political motivations for committing the act.

2.    The act is violent or threatens violence.

3.    The act’s purpose is to send a message, not to defeat the enemy.

4.    The act and victim(s) usually have symbolic significance.

5.    The act is the deed of a sub-state group.

6.    The victim and the audience of the act are not the same.

7.    The act must deliberately target civilians.

What happened at the Oak Creek Sikh temple directly targeted the Sikhs. This was not a symbolic, politically motivated act of violence. The killer wanted Sikhs dead; he was not attempting to build popular support for a political agenda or to pressure some government into changing its policies or taking particular actions. Terrorism uses its victims as a means to an end; hate crimes simply deny that their victims have any value, not even being useful as a means to an end.

Conflating hate crimes and terrorism makes addressing both problems more difficult. Real terrorism is criminal activity for which solutions exist. Hate crimes constitute a different type of criminal activity for which other viable solutions are more appropriate. Among important responses to hate crimes are:

·         Consistently and emphatically, in words and actions, express the dignity of all people regardless of religion, creed, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other such differences. Hate can only flourish in the absence of love and respect for the dignity and worth of all people.

·         Refuse to countenance prejudicial words or actions, even when the speaker or actor is jesting.

·         Intentionally develop a diverse set of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, tearing down the walls that provide the shadows in which hate can flourish.

·         Support gun control legislation. There are no valid private uses for assault weapons, semi-automatics, etc. Licensing gun owners provides one check (far from infallible) against the mentally ill and felons owning guns.

·         Cooperate with law enforcement to apprehend and adjudicate those accused of committing hate crimes. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium is not a valid exercise of free speech, putting the safety of innocent people needlessly at risk. Genuine hate crimes cross a similar line, moving beyond partisan rhetoric (e.g., one may legally and morally dislike a particular religion) to inciting criminal activity (e.g., encouraging people to take violent, illegal actions against members of a religion that one does not like). The shootings at the Oak Creek Sikh temple were clearly hate crimes. Two children bravely cooperated that day to help end it.

In some respects, ending hate is easier than ending terrorism because if each person took the steps identified above, hate would have no place in which to fester. Ironically, ending hate would also end most terrorism: it’s difficult to use the innocent as a means to an end when one values each of them as an end in and of her or himself.

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