Boston Globe columnist, and COMMENTARY contributor Jeff Jacoby hit one out of the park on Sunday when he took on the drive to pass federal hate crimes legislation.
This is a cause that has been embraced by a great many well-meaning groups, including most of the organized Jewish community. But it is, as Jeff so ably points out, absolutely pointless.
If enacted, the law will almost certainly be challenged in court. The Constitution does not grant the federal government any general police power — prosecuting crime is primarily a state and local responsibility — and it is far from clear that the Supreme Court would go along with a congressional attempt to federalize such a broad swath of criminal law.
Which is just as well, since the new law will not serve any legitimate criminal-justice end. Every crime that would be covered by the bill is already a felony under state law. Each one can already be prosecuted and punished. Its name notwithstanding, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act will not prevent any hate crimes. Nor is there anything it could have added to the prosecution of Shepard’s killers, both of whom were convicted of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
So why pass such legislation? Like a great many other activities politicians engage in, it has to do with them pretending they are fighting against things people dislike without actually having to do anything meaningful. In other words, it is nothing more than a pose. As such, we might just all shrug and let it go as a harmless piece of nonsense. But there is a cost.
Hate-crime laws serve a symbolic function, not a practical one: They proclaim that crimes fueled by certain types of bias are especially repugnant. But that is the same as proclaiming that crimes fueled by other types of bias, or by motives having nothing to do with bias, are not quite as awful. Is that a message any decent society should wish to promote?
Suppose Matthew Shepard’s murderers had killed him for his wallet, or to prove their toughness to a gang, or out of sheer sadistic bloodlust. Would his death have been any less horrific? Would his family have shed fewer tears? Is it somehow better when a thrill-seeker burns a church than when a bigot does so? If James Byrd had been lynched by three black men, would his slaughter not have been as monstrous?
The obvious answer should be no, which is what our answer to those who advocate for this well-meaning piece of foolishness should also be.