Monday, 6 February 2012

Times: All crimes are hate crimes
Sunday, February 5, 2012, by Claire Bonello

The violent assault of two teenage girls in Hamrun last month has prompted a two-fold reaction. There was the general sense of alarm at the sheer cruelty involved in the attack on the two girls, who are lesbians.

One of the victims – the 16-year old – was admitted to a health centre with a fractured nose, facial grazing and bruised breasts after being attacked by two teenage boys, while her friend sustained injuries to the head and wrists.

The photograph of the victim's bloodied face published in this newspaper was proof of the brutality of the attack. She describes it as a harrowing experience where one of the boys picked her up and punched her in the eye.

He stepped up the violence by grabbing her breasts, headbutting her nose, throwing her onto the ground, grabbing her hair and dragging her across the ground. Following that kind of experience, I would say that the physical scars may heal in time but the psychological trauma suffered may never be overcome.

The fact that it took place in broad daylight and in a public place is further cause for alarm. How could the aggressors be so fuelled by hate and so reckless as to the consequences of their actions, that they did not think twice before laying into the girls?

Given the horrific nature of the assault and the widespread sympathy felt for the girls, I'm not surprised to see that there are so many cries of 'Something must be done!'

It's only natural to want to try to prevent similar incidents from taking place. However I'm not to sure that we'd be adopting the right solution if we simply went down the route of extending hate crime legislation to include violence against LGBT people.

Hate crimes are acts of violence that are motivated by prejudice against a specified minority group. At present, the hate crimes contemplated under Maltese law are those committed against people because of the victim's affiliation to a racial or religious group. They do not extend to crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation.

The penalty for the commission of hate crimes is harsher than that for the commission of the same crime without the 'bias' element. In other words, if a Maltese man had to be found guilty of injuring another Maltese national, he would be given the standard punishment for such a
crime. However, if the Maltese man were found guilty of injuring a Muslim man and it could be shown that he did so because of some bias against Muslim believers, then his punishment would be increased by one or two degrees.

I have a problem with following the logic behind this. In both cases, the harm being visited upon the victims is equally damaging. Why then, should the punishment be different in the second example?

If we are penalising the motivation involved in one particular crime, and not another, we are veering dangerously into the field of thought crime and minimising violence wreaked on victims who do not belong to a minority group.

In the example given above, the crime committed against non-Muslim victim would be considered less worthy of punishment. I can't think of one valid reason for discriminating between crimes in this manner. If the violent action results in injury, then that action should be
punished in the same way, every time, regardless of the perpetrator's motives.

Put it this way: If a man hits a woman in a jealous rage, is his crime any less heinous than that of a man who hits a woman because she is black? Is it of any comfort to the white woman to know that her assailant was not racially-motivated?

If the attacks were accompanied by insults, why would being called a 'stupid bitch' not attract the same penalties as being called a 'black bitch'? Distinguishing between the two cases, and defining the second case as a hate crime really makes no sense. Even the term 'hate crime'
is a misnomer. By nature all acts of violence are motivated by hate. None are motivated by noble motives. Why should one particular form of hatred be considered more abhorrent than another?

There are also practicalities to consider when it comes to hate crimes. It is up to the police to decide which offences can be categorised as hate crimes and prosecuted as such.

What is there to stop over-zealous officers from passing off any insult with a reference to ethnicity as a racial slur and a hate crime? I know of one case where a man who called another man "A chapati-eating Paki" (when the 'victim' was not of Pakistani origin though arguably a chapatti-eater) and being charged for committing a racially-motivated crime. From that it's not too far-fetched to a state of play where utterances of the word 'Pufta' are dealt with severity because it is considered to be an example of a hate crime fuelled by homophobia, when it is more of a generic insult.

Besides these considerations I would say that the most convincing argument against considering crimes against LGBT as hate crimes is that by discriminating in favour of a particular group, the members of that group are entrenching themselves further as a separate minority instead of integrating into the community.

The end result is the reinforcement of the ghetto mentality of the group, which is hardly desirable. The best possible course of action following the attacks in Hamrun is not the extension of hate crime legislation, but prompt and effective prosecution and punishment, together with continuous educational initiatives to stamp out hatred and intolerance – in all cases.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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