Will the Santa Barbara Slayings Be Classified as Hate Crimes?

Until just a few years ago, gender bias was not even included in the definition of such crimes.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
May 28, 2014, 6:48 a.m.

For any­one still won­der­ing why rape is con­sidered an act of vi­ol­ence, Fri­day’s slay­ings in Isla Vista should help con­nect the dots.

In a 140-page mani­festo, El­li­ot Rodger de­scribed his so-called “Day of Re­tri­bu­tion” — the day when he would wreak his re­venge on all the wo­men in the world for whom his de­sire went un­re­quited. The lo­gic was as simple as it was bank­rupt: If he couldn’t have power over wo­men’s bod­ies sexu­ally, he would have power over them phys­ic­ally. In this case, that meant not rap­ing them but killing them, along with any­one who’d en­joyed the pleas­ures of a sexu­ally ful­filled life — it also meant be­ing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I gave the world too many chances,” he wrote in a rant emailed to fam­ily and friends shortly be­fore his killing spree on Fri­day. “It was time for re­tri­bu­tion.”

Many have writ­ten the tragedy off as the rav­ings of a mad­man, but read­ing through his screed, you can faintly make out the traces of some main­stream Amer­ic­an val­ues: that wo­men are prizes to be won and that men can win them with just a little more money, or a slightly bet­ter job title, or maybe just high­er testoster­one. “You are an­im­als,” he wrote of the en­tire fe­male sex, “and I will slaughter you like an­im­als.” (Over at The Daily Beast, Jeop­ardy! nerd boy Ar­thur Chu has chron­icled the cul­ture of nerdy en­ti­tle­ment bril­liantly.)

Hate crimes, ac­cord­ing to Gail Ma­son, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Sydney, aim to con­demn not just crim­in­al con­duct per se, but also ra­cism, ho­mo­pho­bia, re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance, and the like. “In this way,” she writes in her 2010 pa­per, “they seek to make a broad mor­al claim that ‘pre­ju­dice is wrong’ and to thereby ‘re­in­force pro-so­cial val­ues of tol­er­ance and re­spect for mar­gin­al­ized and dis­ad­vant­aged groups.’ “

Such crimes fit the bill quite neatly for what happened to the two wo­men killed in Isla Vista, but un­til just a few years ago, gender-based hate crimes didn’t even ex­ist as a cat­egory. That changed in 2009, when the Mat­thew Shep­ard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act made gender, gender iden­tity, and sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion pro­tec­ted cat­egor­ies un­der fed­er­al law.

It does mat­ter very much how we cat­egor­ize things: It has the power to change the con­ver­sa­tion, and maybe one day, how we treat wo­men.

Not that these cat­egor­ies have al­ways been par­tic­u­larly help­ful in pro­sec­ut­ing vi­ol­ence against wo­men. Just this week, for in­stance, an In­di­ana man found guilty of re­peatedly rap­ing and drug­ging his wife for years got off without be­ing sen­tenced to a single day in pris­on. He was ul­ti­mately giv­en eight years of home con­fine­ment. Had his as­saults been clas­si­fied as hate crimes, which typ­ic­ally carry harsh­er pun­ish­ments, he may have been giv­en a more suit­able sen­tence.

In­deed, Chris An­ders of the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on has ar­gued in The New York Times that hate-crime laws, with their as­so­ci­ated stricter sen­ten­cing, can add an ex­tra de­terrent to this kind of be­ha­vi­or — but only if the crimes are clas­si­fied and talked about as such.

Jim Jac­obs, a pro­fess­or at the New York Uni­versity School of Law and a coau­thor of Hate Crime: Crim­in­al Law and Iden­tity Polit­ics, doesn’t see the de­bate that way. The shoot­er is dead, he notes, so there’s nobody to pro­sec­ute, and any la­beling would have strictly to do with stat­ist­ic­al clas­si­fic­a­tion. “It would be in­ter­est­ing to know wheth­er they’re go­ing to count it in the stat­ist­ic­al re­port­ing,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It sounds like it should be.” And yet, he adds, if every crime in­volving miso­gyny were con­sidered a hate crime, it would over­whelm the cat­egory. 

He also be­lieves the clas­si­fic­a­tion is more about sym­bol­ic polit­ics than any real re­tri­bu­tion. “It’s a great op­por­tun­ity for politi­cians to stand up and beat their chests,” he said.

It’s true that there’s little chance any le­gis­la­tion will be passed by Con­gress as a res­ult of this tragedy, no mat­ter how the crimes are clas­si­fied. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook shoot­ings, Pres­id­ent Obama was help­less to push through any­thing more than ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions.

But even if no laws are passed by Con­gress, and even if there’s nobody left alive to be held ac­count­able, Fri­day’s tragedy showed that it does mat­ter very much how we cat­egor­ize things: It has the power to change the con­ver­sa­tion, and maybe one day, how we treat wo­men.

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