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.

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