Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. is a white supremacist, and former grand dragon of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Last Sunday he allegedly shot and killed three people at a Jewish community centre, and at a retirement home in Kansas City; the case is to be prosecuted as a hate crime. There is little doubt that the motivation for his alleged murders was virulent anti-Semitism, but I believe that Miller should be prosecuted on the same grounds as any other murder suspect, not via hate crimes.
All murders are morally on a par, because whatever the cause of a crime against another, all crimes indicate a deep disregard for the humanity of the victim. This consideration overshadows the question of whether or not a crime was caused by hate or any other emotion. A crime always constitutes a denial of the fact that the victim is a fellow human, a centre-of-subjectivity. It indicates that in the mind of the criminal, the victim is nothing more than an opportunity for illicit gain (theft), a mere sexual object (rape), or an obstacle to be removed (murder). In light of this consideration it is a matter of small account that Miller’s alleged crime was also intended as an attack on the victims’ ethno-religious group. Ultimate contempt is shown both for the victims of an ordinary murder and for the victims of Mr. Miller’s murders.
The most common and most compelling argument I have come across in favour of the hate crime category is that when a person is wronged on the basis of their being a member of a particular group the crime is not simply the crime it outwardly appears to be, but is a ‘message crime’ that in addition sends a message of hatred to their group.
However our support for the notion of a ‘message crime’ is politically biased. This is shown by the fact that intuitively it matters to us which group the message of hatred is sent to, rather than the fact that a message of hatred is sent per se. Miller allegedly murdered people due to a racial animus, and with his acts sent a message of hatred to Jewish people. Compare your intuitions about his suspected crimes with a case in which a gang member murders a man from a neighbouring gang, thereby sending a message of hate to his rivals. Both murders are wrong of course, but Miller’s alleged crimes irk us a lot more. Both messages sent are messages of hate, but Miller’s is anti-Semitic whereas the second one is… tribalist? We are well accustomed to be aware of and condemn anti-Semitic hate, but not tribalist hate. It’s not the fact that a message of hate was sent that enrages us and causes us to call for a harsher punishment, but that it was a message of a particular species of hate which we do not like.
Being an anti-Semite, or a homophobe, should not be a crime and neither should openly expressing and propagating such opinions. There is no such thing as a ‘message crime’. As odious and immoral as such opinions may be, in a free society people should be allowed freedom of thought and expression. This is because to deny such freedoms demonstrates a far deeper contempt for our status as autonomous beings, capable of forming and reforming our conceptions of the social world around us. Sadly the British state, unlike America with its 1st amendment, infringes on such freedoms.
In cases like Miller’s, where there is suspected racial or sectarian prejudice spilling out into murder and assault, such barbarous acts should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. But it is the acts of murder and assault that are the crimes. It is not Mr. Miller’s opinions which are on trial, however much we loathe them.
Marcus Hunt is a postgraduate student of philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. He previously studied philosophy and political science at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.