The article below in the New York Times could well have been given the headline, “Georgia lawmakers divided on whether last week’s shootings should be labeled hate crimes.” For indeed, that’s the truth, but the subtle slant of the headline is one of the ways the NYT editorializes the news. (This is a news piece.)
First, let’s review the hate crime provisions, signed into Georgia state law last year (my emphasis):
The hate crimes bill that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law on June 26, 2020, imposes additional criminal sentencing guidelines on anyone who commits a “hate” crime intentionally based on race, sex, sexual orientation, color, religion, national origin, mental disability, or physical disability.
Under the new law, a person found guilty of committing a hate crime would face an additional six-to-12 months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for one of five misdemeanor offenses, and at least two years in jail for a felony offense.
This law also specifically requires law enforcement officers to prepare and submit a written report, called a “Bias Crime Report,” when investigating any crimes that appear to be hate crimes, whether or not an arrest is made.
In the case of Robert Aaron Long, who has apparently confessed to eight murders (six of them Asian women), the extra years in jail for a hate crime will hardly matter: if found guilty, which is likely, he’s either going to be executed or spend the rest of his life in jail.
But that’s not the point for those people agitating (“outraged people” as the NBC News said last night) for Long’s crime to be labeled a hate crime. There are reasons for labeling a crime a “hate crime”, one of which appears to be to penalize someone for targeting a special group that might be terrorized, something that’s presumed not to happen with “nonhate” crimes. Regardless of how you feel about a difference between murders and “hate murders”, the law is the law.
The problem, of course, is that although Long shot six Asian women, there’s no evidence yet that he was targeting Asians. Rather, as he told police, he was trying to get vengeance on spa workers who presumably gave him sex, and happened to be Asians, who make up a large percentage of spa workers. And his motivation was to get rid of the temptation of extramarital sex, which his church (which has now expelled him) forbids. Of course, Long could be lying, and it’s early days. That’s why it’s premature to try to get his crime labeled as a “hate crime”. We must wait.
But people don’t want to wait, as detailed in this NYT piece (click on screenshot). And their premature demands for Long’s crime to be classified as a hate crime says more about ideology than about the facts of the case.
Over and over again, I hear people proclaiming that they know what motivated Long, despite the police statement that we don’t know. And of course the other people don’t know, either. They want a charge that fits that fits their desired narrative. Here’s an example of The Argument from What I Want to Believe:
Law enforcement officials and some legal figures have shied away from labeling the killings a hate crime, saying there is insufficient evidence of motivation. Prosecutors in two separate counties are still weighing whether to invoke the hate crimes law.
But that has not stopped the shootings from resonating as bias crimes for many in Georgia, a state that has been at the forefront of the demographic changes coursing through the South.
“I don’t want to draw any conclusions, but it’s obvious to me that if six victims were Asian women, that was a target,” said Georgia State Representative Calvin Smyre, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who helped shepherd the hate crimes bill through the General Assembly.
But of course he did draw a conclusion. And Smyre is making a false equivalence between a victim and someone targeted by ethnicity, not by their profession.
Political leaders, especially in Atlanta, have gone much further, characterizing the events as domestic terrorism and, at least in part, motivated by a web of racial and misogynistic intolerance. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Georgia on Friday, casting the shootings in the context of broader abuse and intolerance directed at people of Asian descent.
But absent clear evidence of the shooter’s intent, there is broad division on whether there are sufficient grounds for adding hate crime charges.
Representative Sam Park, a Democratic member of the Georgia House and the state’s only Korean-American legislator, said it is impossible to separate the crime from the anti-Asian bias and violence that has surged over the past year.
“Regardless of the motive of the perpetrator, we very much feel like this is an attack on our community. Condolences are good. Words of sympathy are great — but actions are necessary.”
Here Representative Park asserts that this is prima facie hate crime because a). he knows the motivation and b). “it’s impossible to separate the crime” from anti-Asian bias crimes that occurred last year. Well, a). is premature and b.) is ludicrous. What counts is the motive of the perpetrator, not that of perpetrators of preceding crimes. Nor does it matter how the community feels, much as I sympathize with their anger. What matters—and what NYT editor Dean Baquet said did not matter—is INTENT. And we don’t know that intent. All we have are the statements of the perpetrator and his acquaintances, which don’t point towards anti-Asian bias.
Some other statements. First, a cautious one:
But Byung J. Pak, a Republican, Korean-American and former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, urged caution before linking the killings to a hate crime before the investigation is completed.
“Prejudging the case before the completion of the investigation puts pressure on prosecutors to perhaps file charges which may not hold up in court, or raise expectations that cannot be satisfied,” Mr. Pak said. “I would be cautious designating this crime as a hate crime until the investigation is complete.”
Then one less cautious:
Marvin Lim, a Georgia state representative who was also among Asian-American lawmakers at the meeting with Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, called for prosecutors to carefully consider using the hate crime statute.
Though officials in Cherokee County claimed that Mr. Long was motivated by sex addiction and not bias against Asians, Mr. Lim pointed out that gender is also protected under the hate crime law.
“Given the facts that we know, and I understand there are more investigations to be completed, I would certainly urge prosecutors to apply it to the extent legally possible,” he said.
As far as I know, Long’s murders could be a gender-bias “hate crime” only insofar as they were intentionally directed at women. This is a judgment call, but it was directed at sex workers, which is like someone shooting killing postal workers because he was mistreated by the post office. It may well be that most of the workers were members of minority groups, but that wouldn’t be the motivation. Disproportionate deaths of one sex or the other (and remember that Long killed a man as well) might not be the direct object of the crime. I’m not a lawyer, though, so we’ll see what happens.
Regardless, the defendant needs and deserves to be treated as an individual, not as a lesson to society or as someone whose crime follows earlier crimes motivated by hatred. Long deserves to be tried oncharges that match his actions and intentions, not somebody else’s ideology.
Let’s face it: even if Long is not executed, if convicted, he’ll never get out of jail, even though one person says in the article that adding “hate crime” to his sentence ensures that he’ll never be released. But he won’t be released anyway. You can’t use the “hate crime” designation that way, either: it needs to be based solely on motivations, not to ensure that someone stays in jail to satisfy your feeling of proper retribution.
The observation that in this case motivation seems to be nearly irrelevant to ideology is a sad commentary on the divisiveness of America. And you can be sure that if the authorities don’t decide that Long’s murders rise to the level of “hate crimes”, there will be a huge outpouring of outrage.