NEWS ITEM: A Hispanic civil rights group wants Taco Bell to quit running commercials that feature a pointy-eared, pint-sized, Spanish-speaking Chihuahua named Dinky. The fast-food chain uses the dog to hype its products with the signature phrase "Yo quiero Taco Bell," which means "I want Taco Bell."
Claims Gabriel Cazares, a former mayor of Clearwater who is of Mexican descent, this ad "is very demeaning. It is definitely a hate crime that leads to the type of immigrant bashing that Hispanics are now up against."
Is this dog guilty of a hate crime?
In November, in language worthy of a flower child from the sixties, President Clinton declared, "All Americans deserve protection from hate." You could practically hear the lyrics "This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius . . ." in the background as he told a crowd, " We have to do more to combat [hate crimes] by removing the poison that breeds them from all our hearts."
The president is not satisfied with the hate-crime statutes already on the books in most states and the federal law, passed in 1994, that adds up to 10 years to the sentence of anyone convicted of a crime motivated by hate based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Now he wants to add language covering hate based on sexual preference, gender, or disability. Legislators have introduced their own slew of bills in both houses, making it clear there will be no toleration of the intolerant.
The underlying sentiment is hard to argue with. Obviously no one should be advocating hate. Nevertheless, all of us should worry about the proliferation of laws against hate crimes, for such laws, unable to protect people from anything as amorphous as a feeling, end up instead targeting speech and other peaceful activities deemed to be hateful.
No one questions that hate crimes exist. At one time, in some places, beating up or lynching a black man not only didnt get you jail time, it practically got you a medal. But the way to right such wrongs is to see that protections on the books are enforced for all groups. Any assault on a person or his property should be treated the same as every other assault, regardless of the victims sex, sexual preference, skin color, religion, and so on. A punch is a punch; a broken window a broken window.
Motive is a factor in the definition of some crimes and in the determination of guilt or innocence, and judges have always had leeway to consider it in determining severity of sentence. But for the law to single out groups for special protection across the board is really just the flip side of the vile practice of singling out groups for special neglect.
The rationales for hate-crime laws are thin as onion skins. Michael Lieberman, Washington, D.C., coordinator of the Anti-Defamation League, compares special protections for minorities to those for police officers. But there is a good reason for treating an assault on a cop as a graver affront to society than an assault on a non-cop: Nothing threatens society more than attacks on those whose special role is to defend it. Police are the exception because their function is unique.
Generally speaking, every crime should be treated as an affront to society, regardless of the identity of the victim.
Attorney General Janet Reno defends laws against hate crimes with the claim that these offenses "tear us apart when we should be moving closer together." But in fact, what tears us apart is the provision of special protection to certain groups, which encourages us to see ourselves not as equal members of society but as a splintered nation of minorities.
Despite the damage they do, hate-crime laws are all the rage because they allow Congress and the president to posture and pander to special-interest groups without appropriating funds. So it was when Congress unanimously passed legislation federalizing church arson in response to the Great Black Church-burning Epidemic of 96. This pleased civil-rights activists, who blamed the spate of burnings on "a well-organized white-supremacist movement" and "domestic terrorism."
Yet as the Church Arson Task Force later reported, fires at black churches actually multiplied only after the publicity began, sparking copycat fires. White supremacists were linked to just two of the 136 burnings, while blacks were responsible for a disproportionate number.
Such cheap thrills for politicians, however, come at a serious price, for what hate-crime legislation singles out even more than particular groups is a particular activity, namely speech. Speech in some form is almost always required for a conviction.
Consider two thugs who both detest homosexuals. Thug One punches a homosexual and shouts a slur. Thug Two cracks a bat over a homosexuals head but remains silent. The proposed federal hate-crime laws would put Thug One in the Big House for up to 10 years (the average convicted murderer serves 8. 5 years), while Thug Two, by virtue of having the foresight to keep his mouth shut, would have violated no federal law, simple assault being even now a mere state offense.
Similarly, an anti-Semite who breaks every window in a synagogue is, without further evidence, a vandal. But if he paints even a small swastika on the synagogue door, hes a hate criminal subject to hate-crime laws and that potential 10-year federal penalty.
According to 1995 FBI data, over half of all hate crimes against persons fell into the category of "intimidation," which usually amounts to pure speech. But whether speech is prosecuted under hate-crime legislation depends on who the speaker is and what he says.
Thus, late last year a 15-year-old on a losing football team vented his frustration by scribbling a racial epithet in his opponents locker room. His father claims the boy is no racist; merely a sore loser. In any case, playing football is a privilege, not a right, and dropping the boy from the team would have been perfectly legitimate. So would a good spanking. But the young man is facing criminal charges.
By contrast, no one would have dreamed of prosecuting a hate crime when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan called Judaism a "gutter religion" or when the Rev. Jesse Jackson called New York City "Hymietown," likened California governor Pete Wilson to Susan Smith, compared the Christian Coalition to the Third Reich, and said Justice Clarence Thomas was "a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests."
Bill Clinton: Defender from Hate Crime
Where, in all this, is the First Amendment? That guarantee of our freedom of speech wasnt drafted to protect expressions like "Have a nice day!" Rather, its purpose was to protect speech some people dont want to hear and believe others shouldnt hear. Most Americans understand the arrangement: I get to express my thoughts whether other people like them or not, and so do you.
For those who are uncomfortable with this tradeoff, there is a place where nasty speech and even thought is regulated beyond our wildest dreams — but theyll need to take their coats. It gets mighty cold this time of year in North Korea.