President Obama has just signed a new hate crimes bill into law. In the past, I have been ambivalent about such legislation. At first, I supported it completely. I mean, hate is bad, right? And the law already makes distinctions based on intent. If I plan a killing ahead of time and then succeed in perpetrating it, then I will be punished more severely than I would had I killed someone in a bar fight. But on further reflection, it seemed rather perverse. If someone were to murder one of my straight, white, non-disabled friends, I would want the murderer to punished just as severely as he would be had he killed one of my friends now protected by hate crimes legislation. In short, it seems to place more value on some lives than others.

I have since changed my mind again, definitively, for two major reasons. First, hate crimes are a form of terrorism. Attacking or killing someone for being gay, for example, is an act worthy of the Taliban. It’s a way of spreading your own values through violence and intimidation. Opponents are fond of screaming that hate crimes legislation will lead to ‘thought police.’ But when the alternative to the ‘thought police’ is a ‘thought lynch mob’ I will choose the thought police every time. That is, if there is going to be coercion either way, I would rather it be coercion moderated by judges and juries than exacerbated by an ignorant mob. And to those fond of Orwellian hyperbole, I would say that you can still hate whomever you want; you just can’t kill them.

The second reason I changed my mind was that I have been to the South. Prior to that, I would not have believed that good people could harbor such rabid prejudices. Most of the time they aren’t even aware of them. So it’s not hard to imagine that community that shared the same prejudices might not hold an offender responsible for his crime if the victim is someone they believe deserves what he got, or that he simply has less value as a person. Hate crimes legislation allows the federal government to intervene in these circumstanced to make sure justice is done.

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