Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Can there be crimes against a community?


I don’t doubt that hate is a big motivation in a great deal of violent crime – the question that concerns me is whether the attacking of a black man because he is black or a gay man because he is gay constitutes a different category of crime from, say, attacking that black man because he looked at my girlfriend or that gay man because he’s a Burnley supporter?

The argument is that a racially-motivated attack is an attack on the black “community” since the crime was, in the context of that community, ‘random’. Thus, it is argued, we are right to introduce a particular category of crime – ‘hate’ crime – that protects society from attacks on minority ‘communities’ within that wider society.

My concern with this particularism is that is formalises a form of ‘groupthink’ – the line that the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence was “an attack on the whole black community” is often wheeled out to explain its singular significance as a crime. But is that really the case?

The argument is that any person from the black community could have been a victim that night. Any member of that community could have been stood at that bus stop. But surely the same could be said for other circumstances where someone was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Take our Burnley supporter for example – could not that same argument applied to the black man apply to the Burnley fan?

And randomness, while a concern to the community, doesn’t affect the circumstances of the crime. Remember this from 2001?
During the three-week killing spree last October, 10 people died and three were wounded. The victims were chosen at random, while they shopped, mowed lawns or put petrol in their cars at garages.

Randomness made the murder spree more chilling but didn’t make it a different category of murder from the drug-related shooting. Yet it was undoubtedly – in the terms of hate crime’s advocates – an attack on a community.

The core of my concern lies in the idea that there can be a crime against “the community”, that somehow a community is an entity and that people are defined by their membership (or otherwise) of that community. It has always seemed to me that, while well-meant, such an emphasis simply plays the racist’s card for him – if people are defined by the group or groups they belong to, how is that different from the racist idea of separate development?

Finally, there must be a difference between the manner in which the media (and us in our daily conversations) respond to crimes motivated by these hatreds and the way in which the courts deal with the crime. The young Asians who hit my son over the head with a hammer did so to get his mobile phone not because he is white. But had racism been their motivation would the actual crime have been different?

The consequences for the victim are identical in both circumstances (although the police didn’t exactly go out of their way to catch my son’s attackers), yet we’re told that attacking my son with a hammer because of his race is somehow worse that doing so to rob him. Because, in some unspecified way, it would be an attack on a “community”. Yet the community is not the victim of the crime any more than society is a ‘victim’ of the robbery.

Crime is an individual act that directly damages the life, health or property of real individuals. For us to pass laws that stretch certain (and only certain – bashing someone’s head in because they’re ginger isn’t a hate crime) motivations beyond the specific situation to apply to a wider “community”, seems to me to enshrine another piece of “groupthink” into the law. We have anthropomorphised community and this cannot – if you are a liberal – be right.


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