The notion of imposing heavier punishments for “hate crimes”—that is, crimes that are motivated by racial, gender, or other prejudice—is a contentious one. As a 1999 Slate “Explainer” put it, “Some scholars … argue that criminals should be punished for their crimes, not for their motives.”
I’ve always been on the fence about applying extra penalties for hate crimes—which feels dangerously like punishing thought crimes—but a new Amnesty International report almost has me convinced of their efficacy. Like many modern NGO reports, “Because of Who I Am: Homophobia, Transphobia and Hate Crimes in Europe,” is built on a foundation of good reporting. Its authors spoke with victims of homophobic violence in places like Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Bulgaria on the way to building a case for a series of recommendations to individual states and the European Union.
But the report’s biggest achievement is its explanation of why the hate motive matters. “Hate crimes are particularly egregious manifestations of discrimination,” it notes. “It is essential to ensure that the discriminatory motives in hate crimes are investigated, acknowledged and publicly condemned by authorities and political leaders, not only to more effectively prevent future such crimes, but to combat discrimination and the destructive message that such crimes send to individuals, groups and societies at large.” True enough, but do hooligans who attack people because they hate gays deserve longer jail sentences than those who lash out randomly?
When it comes to the gay and trans communities, the Amnesty report suggests, it’s important not to allow threats and violence to push people back into the closet, which would be damaging to the individuals affected and to society. As the report states, “Homophobic and transphobic attacks can lead LGBTI individuals to try to make themselves invisible, as a protective shield against targeted violence, often resulting in high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.” Taking these laws seriously also has an educational component: In one of the cases chronicled in the report, the Greek police seemed not to comprehend the very concept of anti-gay animus: When a gay man who had been attacked in Athens tried to report that he was a victim of a “homophobic attack,” two sets of police officers asked what that meant.
Perhaps most important, if laws are on the books, ignoring them sends a message that gay lives are worth less than others. According to the Amnesty report, “80 percent of cases of homophobic and transphobic violence or harassment are not reported to the police, often because of fear of further victimization due to institutionalized homophobia and transphobia.” If the police won’t investigate criminal motivations and the authorities won’t prosecute them, victims will be less likely to report crimes, and so the circle of violence and silence will continue.