The church of Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin, former Republican vice-presidential nominee, was torched Friday night and over $1M worth of damage was done to the structure and its contents. Happily, none of those inside the church were injured. This is obviously a hateful act. Should the arson be treated as a hate crime?
That depends on whether hate crimes are a valid legal construct. Perhaps those with legal credentials could weigh in on that question. Justice demands that crimes be punishable based on the act committed, not the emotions behind it. From this perspective, and even though it’s likely that the arsonist’s actions were politically or religiously motivated, I have to say that I don’t think that he or she, if caught, should be charged under hate crime laws.
Incidents such as those at Palin’s church do provide an interesting scenario to test the validity of hate crime laws from a fairness perspective. If Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church were to be burned, for instance, there would be a fair amount of pressure applied to have the act treated as a hate crime.
On one hand, if the same standard is applied to Sarah Palin’s church, the determination of hatred, which can never be proven, is thrust upon the jury to make. Considering a large number of such cases, such necessarily arbitrary decisions will not be made consistently.
On the other hand, if the Palin incident is not treated as a hate crime, then where is the fairness? Applying hate crime laws to crimes committed against minority groups, whether primarily or exclusively, inherently prejudices the legal process and effectively condones acts of violence against the majority.
In my opinion, hate crimes represent a slippery slope of legal preference – laws that provide special rights to certain categories of victims and whose application requires prosecutors and jurists to attempt to divine motive in order to justify increased punishments. This is not a good idea given that justice is supposed to be fair and impartial.
That’s why the idea of hate crime laws, while they sound and feel good at a superficial level, are bad legal remedies.