May 4, 2007

Why We Don't Treat Terrorists Like Any Other Criminal

by PG

Steny Hoyer and David Schraub make a good point:

As Steny Hoyer pointed out in a breath-taking floor speech (scroll to Hoyer's second clip), in America today we also know of people--people of faith, even--who kill and slaughter because they hate the group their targets belong to. We call them terrorists. They attack us, by their own admission, not because they have met us and dislike us, and not because they are drunk. They attack us because we're Americans. Or Christian. Or Jewish. And despite the fact that murder remains illegal, we have anti-terrorism laws to deal with these people. As we should. The action of these men exists on a different moral plain from run-of-the-mill murderers. Murderers' victims are limited. Terrorists target the entire group towards whom they express their hate. When Nasrallah orders rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, I'm affected too, because his stated motivation is to kill Jews across the world. The slaughter is meant to send a message to me, as well, and I hear it loud and clear.

The people who kill to express hate, to strike fear across whole populations and groups, are terrorists. There can be no distinctions. And so, the Americans who would kill gay and lesbian Americans, like those who would bomb abortion clinics, like those who engaged in lynchings in the south, are terrorists. Their motive is hate. They believe that the people are behind them. Our job, our duty, is to prove them wrong in the most emphatic of terms. That's the message of this bill. And that's why it needs to be passed.

I'm a little doubtful of the "those who would bomb abortion clinics" part of that -- not because I support such bombings, but because I don't think of them as hate crimes. I don't think it should be legal to discriminate against someone because he's male, straight, white, Episcopalian, of English descent, able-bodied, or is 26, but I do think that if I should be able not to hire someone because he performs abortions. Personally, I'm actually more likely to do the exact opposite -- prefer a physician who spent one day a week at an abortion clinic, particularly if she were donating her services there -- but those who think differently ought to be able to act on those beliefs. And if a group is ineligible in my mind for protection against employment discrimination, then I don't see why it's a group whose attackers should receive heightened penalties. One could argue that some state jurisdictions are so opposed to abortion that bombers wouldn't get prosecuted or appropriately sentenced, but given that medical professionals are an educated, well-connected group in most communities, I doubt that the death of a nurse or doctor, even one who performed abortions, would be treated like that of Emmett Till. Neither "abortion clinic worker" nor "non-abortion clinic worker" seems to me a discrete and insular minority, nor a group with a history of discrimination (like women and the elderly, who do not fall into footnote 4 terms), and therefore categorizing abortion-clinic-worker-status with the classifications in the House bill seems weird to me.

May 4, 2007 2:38 AM | TrackBack

I think that the abortion analogy fits more as an act of "terrorism" than an act of "hate". I think hate crimes are a subset of terrorism (though I'm not sure where one begins and the other ends, it would be odd to me drum up a 9/11 conspirator on "hate crime" charges). I do think that, like with anti-gay violence, society needs to find a way (legal or otherwise) to explicitly express condemnation of the sentiments behind abortion bombing, but I'm agnostic as to whether it needs to be called a "hate" crime or an act of terrorism.

I do caution against being too rigid in using legal categories like Footnote 4 groups to constrain normative analysis. I think they're useful, often, but they shouldn't be the be all end all. The moral situation of abortion workers might be special in a way that doesn't make them a discrete and insular minority. One of the advantages of unconstrained moral discourse is that we aren't forced to categorize everything nor use pre-existing taxonomy, and what is important from a constitutional vantage point isn't necessarily the same thing as what is important from a moral vantage point.

Posted by: David Schraub at May 4, 2007 3:36 AM

But lots of people are in what some others would consider morally questionable careers. If someone bombed the home of a Mafia attorney, would you want that to be considered either a hate crime or an act of terrorism, or just plain premeditated attempted murder? I'm inclined to say the latter. I think someone has to defend the Mafia and that such people shouldn't be bombed, but I don't think that someone who expresses their hatred of Mafia defense attorneys, or even who seeks to inspire fear in that group, has committed a "hate crime" or is a "terrorist." I worry about watering down words and laws by pushing too much into their ambit.

Posted by: PG at May 5, 2007 1:51 AM

I don't think that we can extricate these "legal statements" (if you will) from normative conceptions of life paths we wish to affirm and those we are at best neutral or actively hostile to. If you believe homosexuality is immoral, then you don't want to send the specified message that I refer to in my post, because you believe that we should be suppressing homosexual people (even if not by violence). Whether or not we add abortion clinics to the list is simply a statement of whether or not they are a group we feel it is okay to suppress. That moral choice is inescapable, there isn't something inherently distinct about homosexuality versus abortion providers in this debate that I see.

Posted by: David Schraub at May 5, 2007 3:54 AM

Er, I have to say that inasmuch as many people (including homosexuals themselves) consider sexual orientation to be a characteristic that they cannot change, there IS something inherently distinct about homosexuality versus abortion providers in this debate that I see. I can choose whether or not to provide abortions; I can't choose to feel desire for people of the same sex instead of the opposite sex. I would consider the same to be true of military veterans (in a non-draft situation), Mafia lawyers, etc.

Posted by: PG at May 5, 2007 12:40 PM

And religious people as well? As generations of inquisitors would have had no trouble reminding me, I can certainly choose to accept Christ... :-)

Posted by: David Schraub at May 7, 2007 2:22 AM

We've made religion a special status, as demonstrated by its inclusion in the First Amendment, that is treated in our law much more like something unchangeable and even somewhat tied to ethnicity/ national origin. Maybe my thinking on the question of hate crime laws is excessively framed by constitutional precedents, but I am worried about getting too inclusive about what constitutes a "hate crime." Some Communist governments have treated being wealthy as a bad status, so does that mean that if I'm mugged in NYC while wearing a nice suit, I've had a hate crime against my socioeconomic class perpetrated? (After all, most of such crimes are perpetrated against those around oneself, so if someone takes the trouble to come to midtown for a mugging, it must be out of hatred toward the bourgeoise...)

Posted by: PG at May 8, 2007 1:08 PM
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