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Hate-crimes Mission Creep

There's an odd legislative thread being spun out in Maryland. One of the state's most conservative legislators, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, is championing a bill to designate homelessness a class covered by hate-crimes legislation. In recent days, the bill passed both the Senate and the House of Delegates and is now headed to the governor's desk.

Weirdly, reports the WaPo, Mooney introduced a similar proposal four years ago, along with amendments to extend hate-crimes protection to nine other categories including lawyers, veterans, doctors, civil rights leaders, and nurses; only back then Mooney was being a wise guy, making a snarky statement of opposition to legislators' adding sexual orientation to the list of covered groups. But Senator Snark has since undergone a conversion, apparently brought about by a gruesome TV clip showing homeless people getting beaten to death with baseball bats. "I realized homeless people are vulnerable people," he told the Post

I realize that I'm supposed to be moved by the melting of this prickly conservative's icy heart. Plus, since the final compromise bill also extends protection on the basis of gender and disability, I kinda have a horse in this race: I live in Maryland. I'm a woman. Plenty of people hate women. (Hell, plenty of people hate me.) I should find this move comforting, right? 

Instead, I find myself again questioning the wisdom of providing special legal status for pretty much any subset of the populace cohesive enough that it could conceivably be targeted for animus and attack. Setting aside the question of which groups do and do not qualify as sufficiently vulnerable, I'm uneasy with the entire notion that some crimes count more than others on the basis of a criminal's ostensible prejudices.

We're all familiar with the "what-ifs" raised when this issue gets debated: Some pizza delivery guy rapes me. Did he do it because he hates women? Because he hates me personally? What if he also rapes the 15-year-old boy down the street? What if I were homeless and he raped me? What if I were disabled? I'm not being a smartass. This is tricky, sticky territory, and the more categories of people we claim require special protection for the health of the community as a whole, the trickier and stickier it becomes--the more likely we are to wind up with a convoluted, arbitrary, and unjust system of justice. 

I like more concrete rationales for special legal protections: When the courts in certain parts of Dixie were too racist to fairly prosecute white folks for doing hideous things to black folks, it made sense to bring in the feds. But hate-crime legislation isn't about trying to ensure that justice is blind. It's about firmly pressing our thumb on the scales in an effort to send a message about how much we dislike particular forms of bigotry. Obviously, plenty of people see this as a good thing. I myself am sorry that Mooney underwent this particular epiphany.

--Michelle Cottle