WOLLEY: There’s no excuse for Indiana’s lack of hate-crimes law

March 11, 2017

Indiana needs a bias-crimes bill and the moral imagination to get us there. 

Moral imagination is one’s perception and response to societal problems, including ways to make things better.

A friend of mine learns that his child is evacuating from an elementary school because someone thinks it is a good idea to call in a bomb threat at a Jewish Community Center.

Another coward thinks it is OK to vandalize a place of worship for the Muslim community. 

Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, the oldest predominantly black church in Evansville, is vandalized, with criminals leaving a clear message aimed at terrorizing the black community. The problem escalates to shots fired through a Jewish temple in Evansville the day after a bias-crimes bill fails once again in the Legislature.

A bias crime is committing a crime while making one’s hate known against a group of people designated by law. These acts go beyond crimes of opportunity—they signal that an entire group of people is worthy of attack. 

I struggle to imagine how legislators are seeing the world where this is not a problem that should be addressed.

That fact that legislators in the General Assembly can simultaneously concede the idea that people shouldn’t be targeted due to their membership as part of a specific class of people but fail to arrive at a consensus on the language for how to address this issue for over 16 years—many of those years failing even to have a hearing to discuss language—should take on its own meaning and interpretation for posterity. 

I don’t know what it means to be Jewish or Muslim or to walk on a trail and see swastikas. But my moral imagination, my ability to understand a wrong happening to someone else that might not happen to me for exactly the same rationale, is activated in each of these scenarios. 

Forty-five other states have figured out that hate crimes are in fact crimes states should address within criminal codes.

What I don’t understand is the entrenched resistance to the idea of bias-crimes protection in Indiana.

I continue to listen to the opposition on this issue while failing to understand.  

Arguments like, “We shouldn’t police people’s thoughts,” ring hollow when none of the proponents of bias crimes have ever said thinking is a crime. The court case Wisconsin vs. Mitchell establishes that hateful comments are still protected under the First Amendment—a bias crime is an act where the prosecutor can prove intent.

I’ve heard that legislators don’t want to treat crimes “differently.” Ignoring for the moment that most of the country does treat hate crimes as a separate kind of criminal act, a hate crime is different because the crime terrorizes a specific segment of a community. Attacking a segment of a community tears at the social fabric of a city or state in a dramatically different way. Unlike crimes of opportunity, being a non-member of the target population makes you safe from this perpetrator with membership deeming one worthy of attack. 

Some argue it is an aggravating factor, but shouldn’t be a crime itself. This is a failing of moral imagination to understand the crime against the evacuated child and religious communities mentioned above. 

A bias-crimes bill is a moral statement of our values—so is the lack of a bill. We need the moral imagination to both empathize with and conceive of ways to protect all Hoosiers.•


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