Good intentions are no excuse for sloppy legislation, especially when that legislation undermines fundamental liberties.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or, more specifically, well-intentioned legislation. When bad things happen, it’s a natural human impulse to seek to prevent them from happening again. We call for something to be done. This popular outcry often puts great pressure on elected representatives to find a solution as quickly as possible.
The preferred way to do this is by passing new laws, which allow the government to point to tangible evidence of a response, and which can be forced swiftly through Parliament. The problem is that this leads to legislation that appears to deal with the problem at hand but may have more far-reaching, damaging consequences.
Consider the Dangerous Dogs Act. In 1991 following several attacks by violent dogs the government decided to show that something was being done by passing a law which made the ownership of several breeds illegal due to these types of dogs being seen as more vicious.
The effect of this law until 1997 was the destruction of such dogs throughout the UK, causing the death of many innocent dogs that may never have caused harm to any person. The law was such a blunt instrument that it caused considerable harm, which was overlooked due to the pressure to deal with an immediate problem. In other words; through good intentions. One’s mind is drawn to Sir Humphrey’s summary of politicians’ logic: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore it must be done!”
These good intentions become especially pernicious when they clash with our liberty. This is what is happening in the UK now, with the concept of hate crimes. A hate crime is an act of violence or hostility directed at a person because of who they are or who someone thinks they are. Thus it requires two elements: firstly, that a crime has been committed, and secondly, that in the victim’s opinion the crime was committed because the perpetrator took exception to the victim’s identity. It is this second element that turns an ordinary crime into a hate crime.
On the face of it this seems like a well-intentioned policy to stop people from committing crimes. It seems right that we should punish a white supremacist if they attack a shop owned by a Pakistani businessman; or a hunt saboteur if they assault a fox hunter; or a radical Islamist who murders an Ahmadiyya Muslim.
We must consider, however, what it is that we object to about these crimes. It is the property damage, the attack or the murder that we should criminalise and seek to prevent, rather than the reasons behind it.
The crimes would not be any less sinister if they were committed because the criminal were seeking protection money from the shopkeeper; or if the fox hunter were attacked by a farmer who wanted her off his land; or if the Ahmadiyya Muslim were killed in a road rage incident. We should be equally opposed to these vile actions even if they are not based on an ideology.
The purpose of increasing the punishment incurred for a crime by describing the act as an aggravated offence is to dissuade criminals from committing crimes in such a way that makes the crime more dangerous or damaging to the victim. Thus, we may punish more severely a burglary if it is carried out with a knife or while the victim is at home. The reason for this is to modify behaviour so that, even if a burglary takes place, the burglar is less likely to do so while armed or while the victim is present; lowering the chance of greater harm being caused.
This is not the effect of hate crime legislation. The incidents described above would all be treated as crimes and punished accordingly with or without the existence of hate crimes. The effect of the hate crime legislation is to increase the punishment handed down by the court, for identical crimes, because of the ideology of the perpetrator.
By adding the aggravated offence the legislation seeks to modify the behaviour of the criminal by dissuading them from believing in a certain ideology. It does not criminalise the actions of the perpetrator but the reason for the offence. The law is, in effect, seeking to punish people not for what they do but for what they believe.
The hate crime laws are now being used as a political tool to try to repress some ideas that the left dislikes. Consider the accusation brought by Joshua Silver, an Oxford academic, against the Home Secretary Amber Rudd for her anti-immigration stance in her party conference speech last year.
The charges were dropped as no actual crime had been committed, but the implication was there that because Ms. Rudd believed in a view with which Mr Silver vehemently disagreed she had already fulfilled the second limb of the hate crime test. Ms Rudd’s comments have now been logged as a ‘hate incident’ by the police.
This implication that certain views are hateful and so are on the verge of criminality also explain the response by some liberal commentators in the USA to the appalling torture of a disabled man in Chicago by some anti-Trump progressives. Because the perpetrators’ beliefs fell within what was regarded in the commentators’ view of what is acceptable (opposition to Trump), they had difficulty accepting that the incident could be treated as a hate crime.
These examples, amongst many others, demonstrate the general use to which this law is now put. Certain attitudes and beliefs are seen as unacceptable and so are punished more severely in an effort to change people’s opinions on these issues.
We must make a decision. Do we want to live in a country that dictates by threat of force to us what values we should hold and what view we can have or do we stand up for the right to base our beliefs on reasons, not fear of the law – even if this risks allowing people we disagree with having ideas contrary to our own? Should we delegate our moral and political reasoning to appointed policymakers who determine how to implement hastily drafted laws, or should we take personal responsibility to change our society though our own example, and by challenging hateful beliefs through debate and social attitudes?
Adam Wawrzynski practices law in London.
Featured photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.