INDIANAPOLIS – Hate takes us to difficult places.
I’m on the air talking about hate crimes legislation with Indiana Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, Indiana Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, David Sklar of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Indiana Public Broadcasting Statehouse reporter Brandon Smith. (We invited opponents of hate-crimes laws to join the conversation, but none accepted the invitation.)
Our discussion starts by covering well-worn territory.
Indiana is one of only five states in the country not to have a hate-crimes law. Bills to change that have been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly on a regular basis, but they all have failed to pass. Opponents of hate-crimes laws say they violate the First Amendment and punish thought, however bigoted and unsavory that thought might be.
It’s a reservation I have shared through the years. “I have sworn on the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” Thomas Jefferson said.
I believe that.
But this issue, in this era, troubles me.
Porter, Taylor, Sklar and Smith say the historical moment is sharpening the discussion this time.
America’s week of hate-filled horrors – a troubled Donald Trump supporter mailing bombs to many of the president’s critics, a white bigot killing black people in Kentucky, an anti-Semite slaughtering Jews in Pittsburgh – draws most of the attention.
But studies also reveal a 17 percent increase in more garden-variety hate crimes. Vandalizing Jewish cemeteries. Spray-painting swastikas on African-American churches. Sending threatening messages to Muslims, immigrants and people who are LGBTQ.
There’s a lot of venom flowing through the American body politic.
Calls, emails and social media messages begin to roll in.
Several are defensive.
One listener, a white guy, tries indirectly to explain the African-American experience to the panel and the audience.
Porter and Taylor, both of whom are black, roll their eyes and shake their heads. I’m sure they find it instructive to have Caucasians teach them about what it means to be black in America.
Sklar makes the point that any proposed legislation – which would focus on penalty enhancements if something that already is defined as a crime would be found by a court to be motivated by bias – would be race neutral.
Taylor cuts through it.
He says, in effect, that the fact that everyone assumes this legislation will protect minorities demonstrates that we all know bigotry is still a big problem in this country.
Other questions come in.
One person raises the point that has most troubled me.
He says he wants to keep the focus on the act, not the motivation for the act. The implication is that we cannot say one motivation for assaulting someone is less acceptable than others without saying others are more acceptable.
The point we should be making, I always have believed, is that beating people up is wrong, regardless of one’s reasons for doing so.
Smith, Sklar, Porter, Taylor and several other listeners, though, have good answers. They point out that we already take motivation into consideration in the law. Motivation, for example, is the difference between manslaughter and murder.
One listener says spray-painting innocuous graffiti on someone’s house is designed to irritate. Spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue, though, is meant to terrify. It is intended to tell a group of people they don’t belong, that they aren’t fully human, that they don’t have the same rights that others do.
My reservations melt away.
The panel and the listeners have persuaded me.
Being free doesn’t mean we can evade responsibility for what we say or do. Far from it. Being free means that we alone are responsible for the good or the harm we have done.
Attacking people because of their race, faith, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender is a different crime than doing so for profit or out of a misguided sense of mischief. It’s worse.
The First Amendment and freedom don’t give a pass to bigots and hate merchants. This country’s core principles don’t say it’s okay to tell some people they aren’t human and don’t have rights.
In fact, our animating principles say the opposite.
That’s why Indiana needs to join much of the rest of America.
We need to pass a hate-crimes law.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.