The recent shooting of innocent people at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina is a tragedy and an abomination. There can never be any rationale or justification for such an act. The shooter – presumably one Dylan Roof – deserves the death penalty in my opinion. Roof may be tried on federal charges if the Justice Department determines that the shooting constitutes a “hate crime”.
In fact, this incident is pretty much the textbook example of a hate crime – a crime in which the primary motive for the act is hatred toward a particular ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other protected class. Roof apparently chose his target specifically in order to attack black people in hopes of starting a race war.
Now, just for a moment, let’s imagine that was not the case. Let’s imagine that Roof shot those people for some other reason – he was angry with one of them, or just angry at the world in general and taking it out on innocent people. Absent his racial animosity, this would not be a hate crime. But I ask you, would that make it somehow less heinous? Would that make it less awful for the people who have to figure out how to go on living without their loved ones?
The only difference between a hate crime and any other crime is the ideological motivation of the criminal. But think about what that means: Hate crime legislation criminalizes not the criminal act itself, but the opinions held by the criminal. That is a direct violation of one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by our Constitituion: the freedom of conscience, or the freedom to think and hold whatever opinions we choose – no matter how offensive they are to the majority. In fact, it has been argued that you cannot have freedom of speech without first having freedom of conscience.
Should Dylan Roof – assuming he is found guilty of this terrible crime – be subject to additional prosecution on the basis of his racist beliefs? Specifically, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 mandates higher penalties for hate crimes. Should it really matter what he was thinking – or speaking – when he pulled the trigger?
I find racism abhorrent, but I think Roof or any other American has the right to hold such abhorrent beliefs. What he doesn’t have the right to do is shoot people, regardless of whether he dislikes them because they’re black or because their shoelaces are tied a certain way. Trying him for a hate crime is not going to somehow convince other racists to see the error of their ways. In fact, the opposite could be true – by making Roof’s racism the crime, he might become a martyr for white supremacist groups.
I believe South Carolina already allows the death penalty for murder. Let Roof be tried under that statute. Or, if the Feds have to be involved, let them try him for domestic terrorism, which trying to start a race war by murdering innocent people arguably is. But any prosecution under a hate crimes statute – of Roof or any other bigot – is itself an attack on the liberty of all Americans to hold unpopular opinions. When the government can tell us what we are allowed to think, then we are already living in a totalitarian state worse than anything Hitler or Stalin could have imagined in their wildest dreams.