Dylann Roof has just become the first person sentenced to death under federal hate-crime laws, and nobody outside the Klan or die-hard opponents of capital punishment seems to question the decision. When you're an avowed and unrepentant white supremacist who's murdered nine members of a black church in Charleston, S.C., as they studied the Bible, your motives are as obvious as they are detestable.
But what if Roof had been black, or his victims white? They would be just as dead — but would he be just as deserving of the same fate?
The answer, of course, is a simple "yes" — if you believe the legal system is supposed to dispense what used to be embraced as blind justice. Efforts to impose additional sanctions on crimes motivated by hate, however, too often seek "social justice," with predictably divisive and ultimately counterproductive results.
For proof, look no farther than Chicago. In another remarkable example of depravity, four black youths recently kidnapped, bound and tortured a mentally challenged white man and posted a video in which they shouted "F*** Donald Trump" and "F*** white people." They, too, ultimately were charged with a hate crime and other offenses, but only after much time and folly had passed.
When asked by a reporter about possible hate-crime charges, Police Commander Kevin Duffin initially shrugged that "Kids make stupid decisions . . . That will certainly be part of whether or not we determine this is a hate crime or whether or not this is stupid ranting and raving." The four Chicago residents are between 18 and 24 years old; Roof is 22.
All of which caused former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to conclude that "If this had been done to an African American by four whites, every liberal in this country would be outraged and there would be no question that it is a hate crime."
Perhaps. But the very perception of hypocrisy and legal double standards — shared by the right and left alike, depending on the circumstances — exposes the inherent flaw in hate-crime legislation.
Remember when three young men, including two Muslims, were murdered "execution-style" in a home on Lewis Street in March 2016? The possibility religion may have played a role in the deaths attracted nationwide attention, especially from Islamic groups. But when suspects finally were arrested, they told police the shootings followed a failed robbery attempt — at which point people hoping to exploit the crime for political gain no longer cared about the dead. The same thing has happened on a much larger scale in Chicago, which has received more nationwide publicity over one admittedly grotesque but non-lethal kidnapping than it did for the 762 homicides there last year. Who mourns or fights for them? Black Lives Matter?
If you believe the hysteria, America is in the grip of a growing tidal wave of hate. According to the Southern Policy Law Center, at least 437 examples of hateful intimidation and harassment were reported in the week following Donald Trump's election. Trump has properly condemned any such deeds committed in his name, but many alleged hate crimes have also been exposed as possibly politically motivated frauds. The Southern Policy Law Center, in fact, undermines its own credibility by expanding the definition ot "hate group" to include the American Family Association, apparently for its Bible-based refusal to embrace liberal sexual politics.
Former President George W. Bush was branded as a bigot when he refused to support hate-crime legislation in response to the 1998 dragging death of African American James Byrd by three white supremacists in a pick-up truck. But one of the killers was put to death in 2011, another awaits execution and the third was sentenced to life in prison. Adding a hate-crime charge might have made people feel better, but would it have provided a more forceful deterrent than a needle in the arm?
There are indeed times to consider motive in criminal proceedings: Did someone mean to cause a death, or was it accidental? But when the Indianapolis Star editorialized in favor of an Indiana hate-crimes law in November, it unwittingly acknowledged the danger of trying to read a criminal's mind. If last February's vandalism of Fort Wayne's Jewish Cemetery was an example of anti-Semitism, as the paper suggested, what about similar damage at cemeteries operated by Christian groups and others? And even when motives are clear, the Chicago case cautions against allowing them to cloud our objectivity.
It's human nature to have more empathy for some people than others, but the law is supposed to be above that sort of thing. It doesn't always happen that way, of course, but our divided nation punishing people for what they do and not what they think has seldom been more necessary.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.