Charleston – on hate crimes, terrorism and oppression

25 juni 2015 | In Crime Ethics Moral Psychology Philosophy of Law politics Psychology | Comments?

First, there are two initial question regarding how to categorize this event: Was it a hate crime? And was it an act of terrorism? The answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” to both. Statements reportedly made by the suspect, the symbols he wore, the choice of victims and place, the reported premeditation, etc. all speaks to this being a racially motivated crime, i.e. a hate crime as well as a crime committed with the intent to bring about societal change or, rather, to stop societal change, or to bring things back to the way they were, i.e. an act of terrorism. I will put most emphasis on the hate crime angle, as it is my area of expertise.

Hate crime. The Charleston case is one. On nearly every conception of what an hate crime is, if current information stands, this qualifies as one. Some commentators has said that we need to await the result of the full investigation, and that is always a good idea, but it would be surprising if that investigation would undermine what seems to be a blatantly clear cut case. There are a number of hate crime conceptions, that only partly overlap. The most common idea is of hate crimes as distinct by motivation, i.e. the reason why the perpetrator committed the crime. But in fact, many jurisdictions interpret hate crime as a case of intentionally selecting victims from a protected class, and puts less weight on the reason why the crime was committed. This is an advantage in two ways; it does not require proof of motive, and it does not rely on the controversial notion of punishing motive. A third conception understands hate crimes as defined by intent; the intent to strike fear in the targeted community, for instance. On this account, hate crimes are more or less a species of domestic terrorism. A fourth identifies hate crimes as crimes expressing a certain message to the targeted crime. (The expressive account has however been deemed unconstitutional in the US due to its conflict with the 1st amendment). The Charleston case seems to qualify as a hate crime on all these accounts. It seems to be hate motivated, the victims and place were choices because of their racial significance, the intent was (apparently) to send a message and to instigate race war.

That being said, South Carolina does not have a hate crime law. This in itself is worthy of note. The development of hate crime laws in the US was preceded by the civil rights movement, and is generally held to have the differential treatments of former slaves as second-class citizens as its background. The fact that South Carolina has not taken this measure, in conjunction with factors like flying the confederate flag and naming streets after confederate generals, means there is a long way to go. That SC does not have a hate crime law is not the end of the matter. The case can, and it looks like it will, be run as a federal case. Since the Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crime prevention act was signed into law in 2009, federal authorities have extended abilities to handle cases the states are unable or unwilling to take.

This is important for two reasons. First, the federal government having to step in in order to make justice possible in a race based case in a Southern state says something about how America is divided. Second, in order for this to be run as a hate crime case, it must be run on a federal level. But hate crime laws are penalty enhancements laws. And given the gravity of the case, it is quite possible that the penalty, if it had stayed in South Carolina state court, would have been the death penalty. In fact, the probability that it leads to the death penalty in a federal court may be lower. Which means that in order for it to be judged as a hate crime, it may lead to a lower penalty being given. On this account at least, this case can become legally interesting.

Why are hate crimes worse than other crimes? This was a massacre, a mass murder, an act of terrorism. What is the significance of naming it a hate crime?  As I said, hate crimes laws normally take the form of penalty enhancement statutes. This is because they are deemed worse than ”parallel” crimes, i.e. similar crimes absent the hate element. There are a number of reasons why, some having to do with the discriminatory nature of these acts, others with the maliciousness with which they are being committed. The most common account is harm-based, however. Hate crimes, according to influential scholars like Paul Iganski and Frederick Lawrence, hurt more. The primary victims typically experience more psychological harm when the crime is hate motivated. In a case like this, when the outcome is death, that is not relevant. But the additional harm also exist on the victims group and on society in general – it may, for instance, worsen the relations between groups. Both these accounts are relevant here; the targeted group is reminded of the risk it is at, and the tension between groups hightened.. Indeed, that was the expressed intent of the offender – to start a race war

Before moving on, lets just say this on penalty enhancements: Say he is sentenced to the death penalty, and that penalty enhancements cannot come into effect. Still, it is not pointless to treat it as a hate crime. Indeed, many victims and victimized group say that the penalty enhancement is less important than is naming the motive in these cases. Recognizing and condemning these types of crimes is the more important part. Hate crime laws has an expressive function.

So, was this an act of terrorism? Again, the answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” by most definitions. But perhaps not all. What makes an act of terrorism is the intent (together with means reasonably fit to purpose) to cause fear and force societal and/or political change. According to one statement, Roof wanted to bring about a race war, which is certainly one way of doing that.

What complicates matters is that Roof, much like the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, seems to be a conservative terrorist, i.e. one that wants to stop change. Or to change things back the way they were. And this may be one of the reasons why he was not immediately and universally being called a terrorist. The ”typical” terrorist is someone somehow alien to the system which he/she wants to change. The thing that people keep pointing out is that this act was the extreme expression of white supremacy, and that this ideology is actually not that alien to the dominant culture. Many commentators that wants this branded as an act of terror, also thinks that the racism expressed is not uncommon, indeed that these attitudes are entrenched in society, part of the norm. There is some tension between these two aspects: Do we want to portray him as somehow normal, which means that the problem is much, much bigger than the risk of these kinds of attacks? Or do we want to describe him as something ”other”, something alien to our system? The reluctance to accept something entrenched in ”our” culture to be capable of terrorizing that same culture is probably one of the reasons we turn to questions about mental health in these cases. Why would a person congruent with the dominant culture in what is being described as a racist society otherwise go to these lengths, take this sort of risk? In the absence of a deep cultural divide between him and us, we need mental health issues to distance ourselves from a man capable of such heinous crimes.

The reasons why it might not be understood as terrorism is that we do not yet know whether there is any clear organization behind him – which is typical of what people think of as terrorism. Of course, the need for such organizations to facilitate acts of terrorism is considerably weakened by the internet, which make it possible to cherry-pick an ideology, a support base, and a methodology to suit you. Secondly, that the criminal is (as Åsne Seierstadt stated in her book about Breivik) ”one of us”, i.e. not that different from normal members of the population. This is significant as it means there is no discernible ”other” to direct retaliation towards. Terrorist threat is ”supposed” to come from outside, from people with no other route to a position of power. Rather than describing it as an act of terrorism, then, it could be branded as an act of oppression. 

The significance – Charleston as a symptom

What does this act mean? What does it signify? Is it a sign of things getting worse, and this is just a symptom of growing racism and racist rhetoric? Or (counter-intuitively) may it be a sign of things getting better? Racist offenders may find their justification in others expressing the same views. But they also find their justification in thinking of themselves and the society and values they care about as being somehow threatened. While hate crime criminals are often part of the majority, it is when that majority think of themselves as loosing their privilege that the need to commit a crime to keep that privilege arise. Lynchings were often a reaction to former slaves behaving in a way that former slaveowners and other whites thought of as unacceptable for a black person. Similarly, hate crimes are often understood as a response to people of the hated group stepping out of their place, and there being no other way of putting them back. Segregation, privilege and power means rarely having to worry. But, of course, privilege should be threatened. People like with the beliefs that Roof seem to have should be feeling threatened, because the order they want should be collapsing. If this is how it works (note that this is just a hypothesis), a rise in these types of crimes is likely to occur as things becomes better at a more everyday, ”structural” level.


On caricatures, freedom and the nature of assholes

13 januari 2015 | In Comedy Emotion theory Ethics Hate Crime media Moral philosophy Philosophy of Law politics Psychology Psychopathy Self-indulgence Uncategorized | Comments?

I have to admit, I’m not overly fond of caricatures. Never have been. I guess sometimes they manage, just like a good metaphor does, to capture something important about its object that was not as obvious before. The thing that a caricature brings out about the object is usually intended to render it ridiculous. Most things are partly ridiculous, of course, it’s almost never a useless way of viewing a thing. But it becomes particularly useful if the thing, or person, or group,  is in power, is pompous, is revered to an unreasonable extent. It becomes less so, even harmful, if the thing or person, or group, is already despised, disenfranchised, already treated as ridiculous.


The reason why I’m not overly fond of caricatures, or metaphors for that matter, is that they rely on putting emphasis on certain things at the expense of other things, and the result, the ”translation”, as it were, depends on whether that serves to correct the received view in order to reflect the actual importance of those things. Caricatures have a history of ridiculing power, and that history is well-rehearsed these days. But they also have a history of serving power. Of dehumanizing people it deems of less importance, which makes those people even easier to disregard, or even to kill.

There is an argument that says that we have freedom of speech in order to protect precisely the sort of statements that we do not like. This is spurious. It may be true that the extent of freedom of speech can be measured by exactly how offensive, vitriolic, hateful, debasing, threatening expressions that it allows, but it hardly seems to be the point of having freedom of speech. Some people will say that freedom is a value in itself. Others, like the more often quoted than read J.S. Mill, say that freedom of speech is an instrumental value, which serves a function. And it can be limited when it fails to serve that value. On this account, we can say that freedom of speech is a matter of costs and benefits. The offensive can occasionally be a benefit, the hateful very rarely is, but we may want to preserve the right to make hateful assertions because the total value of relatively unregulated speech is positive.  The benefits may outweigh the costs. (It should be noted that this analysis could, and, I believe, should, adjust for fairness. If the costs and benefits are unfairly distributed so that the worst off bears the greatest burden, the cost may be unacceptable even if it is outweighed in absolute terms). Hate speech laws tend to draw a line between the offensive (which is allowed) and the hateful (which is not), but some legal scholars and a lot of libertarians believe this distinction fail to track anything of moral importance.

Now. In moral philosophy, the notion of an asshole is quickly turning into a technical notion of considerable use. An asshole is a person that does not infringe on other peoples rights, but does everything he/she can to reap the benefits for him/herself, and nothing to help others. It is the kind of person that uses freedom of speech to say all the worst things he/she is allowed to, while contributing nothing to a worthwhile discussion. The behavior of such people tend to be on the cost side in the cost/benefit analysis of a right. Assholes are on the cost side, and when they become too many, the instrumental value of certain freedoms decreases. At the same time, the fact that we tolerate them (even encourage them in certain contexts) may be a testament to the strength of our society, our resilience. Assholes also serve the considerable function of demonstrating the gaps in our systems and institutions.

I’m going somewhere with this. I have not made myself familiar with the works of Charlie Hebdo. I don’t know french, and I’m not sufficiently familiar with the cultural and political context. If I understand things correctly, their tendency has been to make fun (if that is the right word) of power and pompousness in all it’s guises. It certainly is no straightforward instrument of power. But equal treatment does not amount to equal effects, especially when the people and groups treated have different social standings to begin with. Some of their work may render things ridiculous that we all benefit by viewing in that light. Some of it may serve to dehumanize and ridicule people that are already being discriminated against, whose social standing in the context is low. The latter is an unmitigated cost, and it is the work of assholes, in the technical sense described above. Caricaturists will often tend towards asshole-hood. And it is possible that they should, that it is for the good that there are people, and publications, like that. But it would probably be unbearable if we were all like that. And while the extent of free speech may be measured by the worst things it allows, the value of it must be measured by the best things it allows that would otherwise have been banned.

Some hate crimes are worse than others

18 december 2014 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Philosophy of Law Psychology | Comments?

A tale of two hate crimes

Imagine that I am physically assaulted on my way to work because of my membership in some of the groups to which I belong. The white, the middle-class, academics, the city-dwelling, the fairly tall, the heterosexual or what have you. Imagine what, in this very unlikely event, would happen to me, given that I survive the assault and am not hospitalized.

I would report the crime to the police, who would hear my story and do whatever it could to track down the assailant. Then I would probably call in sick, stay at home for a some period of time, be afraid to go out, have difficulties sleeping etc. The social security system, and the social ”safety net” would soon spring into effect, I would receive a large share of my salary, my employer is very understanding, and would keep in touch but not press me to come back to work. My family and friends would gather round, make sure that I remained safe, fed, got the opportunity ta talk things through. I may never regain my complete sense of security and confidence, and may fear renewed victimization due to the manifested presence of violence inducing bias towards me in some capacity.

Now imagine a person of Roma origin from eastern Europe, begging outside a convenience store in the middle of the Swedish winter. Imagine what is unfortunately not that unlikely, that person being attacked by a hate motived assailant. What would happen then? First, that person may hesitate to contact the police, due to earlier encounters (eviction from a camp, say), fear of being harassed, registered, of being picked up on the police ”radar” as someone associated with crime and, minimally, not expecting to be taken seriously. So there is, at the very least, a hurdle to clear for any kind of social security or victim support to kick in. Further, there is very little by way of a home for this person to return to, and there is no social security, no compensation for lack of income. The situation in the homeland, which it is expensive to get back to, is not much better. There may be family and friends around, of course, but these too have to earn their living in this makeshift fashion, and they are equally at risk of being targeted.

Risk and disadvantage

Now, there are two very relevant differences between these two cases.

First, the latter sort of attack is much more likely to take place. Even when it doesn’t, people of Roma origin, particularly recent arrivals in the exposed situation of being forced to spend time begging, live with the constant risk of being assaulted, and with the constant presence of reminders of this risk. (Verbal assaults, campaigns from populist right-wing parties). Whereas I may receive a handful of group-based insults over a life time, these people receive them every single day. Besides the fact that such assaults, when they occur, have terrible consequences, they also serve as an reminder of the constant risk of assault of which they are manifestations.

Second, the difference in impact described above means different amounts of harm caused. The fact that I have access to a marvelous social safety net makes it the case that a lot of resources are concerned with minimizing the harm of such an attack. This is hardly present at all in the case of the Roma immigrant above. This is to say, they are at an disadvantage in almost any conceivable way.

Some hate crimes are worse than others

Committing a crime against a person belonging to a thus disadvantage group is, arguably for that very reason, worse than committing a similar crime against me. Doing so because they belong to that group betrays a particularly heinous motive. Both crimes above are motivated by hate/bias, but the latter is clearly worse because of the relative social standing of the victims. If so, it is not just the hate that matters, but the fact that this hate purposefully targets people that are already at a heightened risk for this sort of attack, who lack comparable resources to minimize harmful effects (including reduction in income), and that have a minimum of support when being attacked.

It is bad enough to attack these people at all. To attack them because of their membership in this group that is thus at disadvantaged, is simply beyond the pale.

Hate crimes and harm

In a forthcoming paper (in a symposium section of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, edited by me and Christian Munthe), Paul Iganski and Spiridoula Lagou point out that hate crimes do tend to hurt more than other crimes, but that some hate crimes hurt more than others. This is an important, and yet under-researched, matter. If the seriousness of a crime is proportional to the harm involved, such matters are important. In particular, it is important for which groups should be included, and be made a priority, in the enforcement of hate crime legislation. The sort of contrast I described above suggest that it is not simply the hate/bias element that makes these crimes particularly serious, even if that is a contributing factor; it is also the fact that some groups are more frequently targeted, and that some groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to resources to cope with victimization.

The When Law and Hate Collide Radio Documentary

25 november 2013 | In academia Crime Hate Crime media Philosophy of Law Self-indulgence | Comments?

At the fourth meeting of the research project ”When Law and Hate Collide”, which took place in Brussels in 2012, we recorded a radio documentary. It features the project members Michael Salter, Kim McGuire, Christian Munthe, David Brax (that’s me), Caroline Bonnes and Michael Fingerle along with noted experts Paul Iganski, Henri Nichols of the FRA, Paul Gianassi from the UK Ministry for Justice, Joanna Perry from OSCE-ODIHR, Jackie Driver from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and UCLAN’s Bogusia Puchalska.

I identity six types of justifications for penalty enhancements at 10:40 and the possible criteria for inclusion as a protected group at 22:47

And here it is:

Radio documentary