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August, 16th 2012

The FRC shooting and "hate crimes"

– Liz Mair

Yesterday's shooting at the Family Research Council (FRC) has grabbed a lot of attention, and rightfully so. The shooter's actions were (obviously) abhorrent, and not something that we can or should accept, dismiss, overlook or pooh-pooh. I have had plenty of policy disagreements with the FRC throughout the years, and no doubt I will continue to have them, but the bottom line is that we live in a free country and nobody in a free society should fear for their lives or their personal safety because they engage in debates in the public square, express their religious or philosophical beliefs, or participate fully in public life. This is America, and we don't tolerate that kind of thing here. Period.

My personal hope is that the shooter gets mental help that enables him to understand and appreciate in due course that the same freedoms and protections he holds dear apply just as equally to every other member of our society, whether he likes it or not. Liberal democracies do not function where there is not consistent recognition that even that asshole over there who makes you really, really, really mad has the same rights as you do, and when you violate his, you undercut and diminish your own. I'd also add that with the number of horrific shootings we have had in recent years, which have led to the usual debates about gun control, another personal hope is that this one does more to spark a national conversation about how we identify and treat mental illness (but that's something of a side note).

If the issue is not mental illness (and I'll admit that my personal view is that there's almost always some of that where a shooting that seems designed to "make a point" occurs), then I hope the shooter rots in jail for a very long time, where he'll have a better opportunity to assess whether attempting to shoot up a place whose leaders' views he disagrees with was a good trade for having to sit around in an orange jumpsuit, eat crappy food, and get yelled at by prison guards for years and years-- or whether, in fact, respecting the rights of Tony Perkins (or anyone else) to maintain views he thinks are deeply objectionable is a good trade for him having the right to hold beliefs that Tony Perkins may also find objectionable and, you know, be able to walk around freely and buy however many Chik-fil-A sandwiches he wants, etc., etc.

But there is one thing that shouldn't happen here, in my view, at least where self-described conservatives and libertarians are concerned: Doubling down on the call for treating things as hate crimes for legal purposes and attaching greater penalties because X group was targeted. I raise this because I received an email from the conservative Committee for Justice earlier urging the "serious" investigation of the FRC shooting as a hate crime.

This will be a controversial statement to some of my readers. Yes, I accept that many crimes we designate as hate crimes are perpetrated specifically to scare the living shit out of a group of people and keep that group, collectively, from exercising its rights and freedoms because the perpetrator doesn't like who that group is, in terms of a core, identifying feature. And yes, that is obviously repugnant and wholly objectionable.

However, a crime is a crime and we purport to treat people equally in this country. Conservatives-- especially social conservatives-- have expressed deep opposition to hate crimes legislation designed to protect gays, lesbians, transgender persons, etc., and-- deep breath, everyone--guess what? They were right (albeit that I don't agree with some of the arguments tendered in support of their stance).

Had the shooter been successful in killing someone (and let's all thank God he was not, and that the security guard on duty did such an amazing job to shut him down), the killing of a Christian FRC staffer by someone who apparently hates the FRC and what it stands for would be no less objectionable than the killing of a Human Rights Campaign staffer by an religious nutter who hates gays armed with a gun, or any one of the killings that happened in Aurora, Colorado, or the killings that happened in Arizona at the Gabby Giffords event, or the murder of an African-American man by a white supremacist, or any number of murders committed every day in this country where a racial/gender/sexual orientation/belief motive may or may not be present. 

That's something that has largely, to-date, been accepted by conservatives and libertarians. It should remain so.

The FRC shooting-- just like the shootings in Colorado and Arizona-- was deeply upsetting, to me because I believe actions like this risk (further) destroying a basic compact and mutual respect that people must have for each other in order for our society, a liberal democracy, to function (and I want it to function!).

For those who share the philosophical and political beliefs of the FRC, it will have been additionally upsetting because it is scary when someone targets (or appears to target) people who share your perspective simply because they choose to engage in political debate and express their views. It is completely understandable, especially given concerns that some among this group have about the description of the FRC as a "hate group" by its political opponents (which they fear, correctly or not, may have incited this crime), that there would be a desire for extra protection and to respond to an event such as this by taking a more positive and favorable line about hate crimes legislation and enforcement.

However, that still does not make it the philosophically correct, or consistent, position, in my view. I hope conservatives will think twice about jumping on the hate crimes bandwagon, abhorrent though this crime was and as much as there is an emotional driver to do so.

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