The Chicago Facebook torturers, the four black assailants who filmed themselves abusing a white teenager with special needs, have been charged with committing a hate crime. But they shouldn't have been. Yes, their actions were hateful, and appeared to have been motivated by anti-Trump and even anti-white sentiment, but so what? If we're serious about freedom of thought and belief, then we must insist they be charged only for what they allegedly did to their victim physically, not what they were allegedly thinking while they did it.
There has been a collective sigh of relief that the four face hate-crime charges. It was feared the cops would let them off for the prejudiced aspect of their crime. Chicago Police Commander Kevin Duffin sent much of the media and the entire right-leaning blogosphere into meltdown mode when he initially described the four as "kids" and said "kids make stupid mistakes." We can't be sure this was a hate crime, he said, because we don't know if the attackers' remarks—"Fuck white people," "Fuck Trump"—were "sincere or just stupid ranting and raving." Cue fury, Twitter-rage, and columns on how hate crimes against white people are taken less seriously than hate crimes against black people.
There was palpable agitation for the four to be had up for being hateful as well as violent; for verbally abusing white people as a group as well as physically abusing a white individual. On the alt-right in particular, or whatever we're calling it these days, there was concern that black racism against whites isn't taken seriously. Heat Street called out the "progressive pundits" who were "slow to call [this] torture a hate crime." It listed the Washington Post's Callum Borchers and the New York Daily News' Shaun King as people who are quick as lightning to denounce grim acts against blacks as hate crimes, and evidence of an entrenched racism, but who in this instance were "reluctant to call it a hate crime."
Many fumed over CNN's political commentator Symone Sanders, who said the torture was "sickening" before adding: "We cannot callously go about classifying things as a hate crime." Sanders took issue in particular with the idea that the torturers' cries of "Fuck Trump" were a case of hatefulness officialdom should concern itself with. "In connection with the president-elect Donald Trump, or even President Obama for that matter, because of their political leanings, that's slippery territory—that is not a hate crime." Tweeters and the white right went crazy.
But here's the thing: Sanders has a point. A very important point. If we allow the torturers' cries of "Fuck Trump"—or, more realistically, their cries of "Fuck white people"—to be factored into their charges or trial or punishment, then that is indeed slippery territory. Because we're inviting the state to chastise them for their beliefs. We're making thought crime an actual thing.
It is undoubtedly the case that those who normally see hate crime everywhere—who think misogyny is rampant, that criticising Black Lives Matter is a species of racism, and that inviting controversial speakers to campus is tantamount to violence—were cagey about calling this a hate crime. But our response shouldn't be to demand: "Admit this was a hate crime! Call for anti-white hatred to be punished too!" That plays their game of empowering officialdom to police and punish hatred. No, we should challenge their categorization of anything at all as a hate crime.
The problem with the whole idea of hate crime is captured in its name: what business is it of prosecutors and judges if we hate things? The four have been charged with kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint, aggravated batter with a deadly weapon, and hate crime. The first three are absolutely the business of officialdom: society ought to treat seriously any violent or criminal diminution of an individual's autonomy. But the last one, hate crime, takes us from the realm of the four's behaviour into the realm of their minds, their ideas, their convictions. As a BBC report put it, the hate-crime charge is based on the fact that they made "derogatory statements against white people" and their target was a "mentally disabled white man." It should not be a crime to hate white people, though, or even disabled people. Such hatred might be foul, but it's an emotion; an ideology.
In Illinois, where the four will go on trial, a hate crime is one motivated by "reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals." Such hate-crime law is now widespread in the US, and across the West. In some cases it can mean individuals being punished more harshly where hatred of a group was a driving force to their criminal behaviour.
This doesn't work. It is rightly against the law to punch a man in the face, but it should be no concern of the law that you punched that man in the face because you hate his religion, or national origin, or creed. Punching a Muslim is criminal; hating Islam shouldn't be. Stabbing an Italian is criminal; hating Italy shouldn't be. Yes, such hatred should be confronted when it rears its ugly head in the public sphere—but it should not be pathologised by governments or courts.
Thought policing is being reintroduced through the backdoor. When we allow the state to make a spectacle of someone because they dislike certain groups or religious beliefs or ideas, then we throw open the mind, emotion itself, to sanction and correction. Those four people should be tried for what they did to that young man, not for what they thought about him or his race or his ability.