Saturday, October 2, 2010

Equal Protection Under the Law

One of the biggest news stories of the past several days, other than the syphilis experiments unethically carried out in Guatemala, is the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. While I feel for the anxiety and struggles Tyler must have gone through leading up to his fateful jump, the incident has led me to think more critically about hate crimes and hate-crime legislation, and come to the conclusion that I disagree with the entire premise.

This is not to say that I don't think that what Tyler's roommates allegedly did was awful, or that they were motivated to do what they did in no small part because he was gay. But I do think that ultimately, their reasons do not matter.

I have tried to understand the arguments for hate-crime legislation from the most liberal perspective that sociology could teach me, but I still cannot understand why they are necessary or even fair. The existence of such legislation seems to suggest that the murder or assault of a minority person is somehow more meaningful or punishable than that of someone in the majority. The argument that the government needs to take an active hand to compensate for the disparities that exist in society don't hold up with regards to a committed crime. Perhaps--and that is only perhaps--the government is responsible for instituting preferential measures in order to address persistent inequalities in areas such as education, but I believe that the moment someone commits a crime against another person, all social identity is essentially erased.

In a murder or an assault, there is a perpetrator and a victim. What difference does it make who or what these people are? A person is dead, a person has been attacked. In all such crimes there is a motivating hatred; whether or not that hatred can be placed under a socially tinged classification should not make a difference in how the guilty party is punished. If Tyler had not been gay, but rather simply been an unbearably annoying roommate, would Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei's actions been any less invasive or reprehensible? I think not.

One of the foundations of the United States justice system is "equal protection under the law." The pain for the victim's families is the same regardless of the social group to which they may belong, and the act of harming another human being is the same. And yet hate-crime legislation persistently contradicts the word "equal"...

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