The victim of the depraved crime captured in a Facebook Live video last week, a mentally disabled 18-year-old bound and gagged by tape, seemed confused and terrified as his assailants, at least one of whom he regarded as a friend, gleefully humiliated and tortured him. They cut off part of his scalp with a knife, punched and kicked him in the head, and forced him to drink toilet water, laughing all the while. According to Chicago police, the ordeal went on for hours.
Responding to an incident that was appalling in many ways, conservative commentators focused on skin color: The white victim's black attackers could be heard cursing white people, prompting demands that they be charged with a hate crime. That reaction illustrates how hate crime laws politicize criminal justice and foment social discord.
"If this had been done to an African-American by four whites," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News, "every liberal in the country would be outraged, and there'd be no question but that it's a hate crime." Glenn Beck bizarrely blamed the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeting, "Stand up with me and demand justice in Chicago for the beating of a disabled Trump supporter by BLM."
That claim, which gave rise to the Twitter hashtag #BLMKidnapping, apparently was based on the fact that the assailants repeatedly exclaimed, "F—- Donald Trump! F—- white people!" But it's not clear that the victim, who has not been publicly identified, actually supported Trump, and there is no evidence of any BLM connection.
Attacking someone because of his political beliefs does not qualify as a hate crime under Illinois law. But doing so "by reason of" the victim's race or disability does, and last Thursday four people — 18-year-olds Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, and Brittany Covington, plus Covington's 24-year-old sister, Tanishia — were charged with a hate crime in connection with the Facebook Live assault.
Hate crime laws typically enhance penalties for crimes that target members of certain groups. Therefore, they can have the effect of punishing offenders for their bigoted beliefs, since a defendant's statements about his victim's group may be cited as evidence of his motivation.
In this case, however, the hate crime charge is unlikely to affect the punishment Hill et al. receive, since they are also charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint and aggravated battery. The kidnapping charge alone is punishable by six to 30 years in prison, compared to a maximum of three years for a hate crime in Illinois.
The hate crime charge may not satisfy critics like Gingrich and Beck, who perceive a racial double standard in the way crimes motivated by bigotry are handled. The Chicago Tribune reports that "investigators believe the man was targeted because he had special needs, not because he was white."
If so, this "hate crime" might have nothing to do with hate. Perhaps the attackers picked their victim because they thought he was an easy target, not because they had any particular animus against people with disabilities.
Such speculation about motives probably gives the assailants, who were impulsively cruel and stupid enough to stream their crime live, too much credit. Trying to parse the role that the victim's race or disability played in this senseless display of sadism seems like a vain exercise — unless you are trying to score political points or advance your group's claim to special treatment.
Because hate crime laws elevate some victims above others, their scope tends to expand over time. If race and religion are covered, doesn't fairness demand that disability, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity be included as well?
A Louisiana law that took effect last summer classifies attacks on police officers, firefighters, or paramedics as hate crimes too. Similar "Blue Lives Matter" bills have been introduced in several other states.
This unseemly competition, in which interest groups vie for recognition and status, has very little to do with justice, which requires equal treatment under the law.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.