Morris: The Dangerous Irony of Hate-Crimes Legislation

January 29, 2018

by Leo Morris

Indiana is one of only five states that don’t have hate-crimes laws on the books. If we wise up and pass one, it will repair the state’s image as a haven for intolerance.

Play it safe and follow the crowd. That’s basic psychology.

A hate-crimes law would send the message that Indiana values diversity and nondiscrimination, persuading our open-minded young people to stay instead of fleeing the state.

Reset the group dynamics. That’s sociology. 

Supporters of hate-crimes legislation are “cautiously optimistic” this year because even Republicans Gov. Eric Holcomb and House Speaker Brian Bosma say they are open to the possibility.

Get the buzzards off our backs. That’s public relations.

So where exactly does “criminal justice” enter the picture?

We shouldn’t make the mistake of some skeptics by claiming there isn’t even an issue to address. Hate crimes may not be at epidemic levels but they surely exist. People get intimidated, beaten up and even killed because they are different. And the effect of hate crimes, if not always the intent, can be to terrorize an entire community of people. Don’t those communities deserve not just that the law punish the individual criminal but also send a signal from the larger society that their well-being is of special importance?

Well, no, not if we consider what the purpose of the law is.

Certainly, the law should punish the guilty and, as much as possible, make the wicked see the error of their ways. It should create a sense of predictable order so we may know how we should and should not live when we are among other people.

But those are the functions of the law. Its ultimate goal should be to make us feel safe. We know that in the ordinary course of our daily lives we may go about our business free from interference by those who would harm us. And if we are harmed, we can expect the perpetrators will be punished in such a way that like-minded miscreants will be dissuaded.

Critics of hate-crimes legislation raise the right concern when they ask whether some groups deserve more protection than others, but they get the emphasis wrong. The proper question is: Do some groups deserve to feel less safe than others?

Consider the residents of some our worst neighborhoods. It is not just the individual victims of muggings and murders who suffer. Every member of the community can feel abandoned by the larger society, afraid and unprotected every time they leave their front doors. They are terrorized no less than the groups targeted by cross-burnings in front yards or Swastikas spray-painted on synagogue walls. Shall we really create a hierarchy of the terrorized? Go to the back of the line – your fear isn’t on our list today.

It is too true that the authorities acting on our behalf have too often ignored or dismissed complaints of mistreatment by those not in the majority. But the remedy for our past sins is not to embrace the opposite sin of giving some claims of mistreatment more attention than all claims of mistreatment.

The solution is to do what we should have always done: To define the mistreatment, with clear, bright lines, establish understandable and appropriate penalties and punish those who cross the line, all of them, every time.

That’s the way to make all of us feel as safe as we should feel.

Advocates of affirmative action twist themselves into logical knots to justify discrimination today against some groups to make up for discrimination in the past to other groups, seeming to never realize that if discrimination is wrong, it is always wrong – you cannot do the wrong thing for the right reason. In fact, “Two wrongs make a right” is their moral high ground.

Hate-crimes laws are the affirmative action of the criminal justice system. We skip over the right thing to do and think doing the wrong thing for the right reason is a good shortcut.

This nation was founded on the greatest political idea in the history of the world: Rights inhere in the individual. Only by demanding respect for those rights can we keep the forces of oppression at bay. The further we drift from individual rights to group rights, the more likely we return to the rule of the king who decides which groups to reward and which to punish with no rhyme or reason except his whim.

Those who push for hate-crimes laws are trapping themselves in a terrible irony. They are asking those they would normally consider the oppressors to define the oppressed.

That is not just misguided. It is dangerous beyond belief.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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