Wikipedia defines "hate crimes" in America as being:
Defined in the 1999 National Crime Victim Survey, "A hate crime is a criminal offense. In the United States federal prosecution is possible for hate crimes committed on the basis of a person's race, religion, or nation origin when engaging in a federally protected activity." In 2009, the Matthew Shepard Act added perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to the federal definition, and dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally-protected activity.
It also presents a host of specific examples:
During the past two centuries, some of the more typical examples of hate crimes in the U.S. include lynchings of African Americans, cross burnings to drive black families from predominantly white neighborhoods, assaults on white people traveling in predominantly black neighborhoods, assaults on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the painting of swastikas on Jewish synagogue and xenophobic responses to a variety of minority ethnic groups.
So how does Cohen, in an editorial this week, present the concept of a hate crime? At the end of his second paragraph, Cohen summarizes correctly:
It is not the criminal act alone that matters anymore but the belief that might have triggered the act. For this, you can get an extra five years or so in the clink.
In other words, one must first be convicted of committing a crime and only after that can one be convicted of committing the crime due to hatred for the victims' ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.
Media Matters really hammers his previous statement, though:
Almost as bad as hate crimes themselves is the designation. It is a little piece of totalitarian nonsense, a way for prosecutors to punish miscreants for their thoughts or speech, both of which used to be protected by the Constitution (I am an originalist in this regard).
Really? Calling the torture of three gay men a "hate crime" is almost as bad as torturing three gay men? That the Washington Post would publish such warped anti-gay moral equivalence doesn't really surprise me; that it would come from the paper's purportedly liberal columnist is, however, quite disappointing. [emphasis in original]
Cohen's following statement is truly puzzling:
...the liberal belief that when it comes to particular groups, basic rights may be suspended. Thus we get affirmative action in which certain people are advantaged at the expense of other people based entirely on race or ethnicity. This tender feeling toward minorities must account for why civil liberties groups have remained so appallingly silent about hate-crimes legislation.
Erm, where are rights being suspended? Convicted criminals are being given extra punishment. How on Earth does that mean that any group is being "advantaged"? Remember, people are not being convicted simply because of their bigotry, the hate crime conviction comes after they've been convicted of committing a crime in the first place. Why have civil liberties groups not been condemning hate crimes laws? Well, I'm not sure why this even has to be explained, but if society does not express any sort of official opinion about a crime that targets specific minorities, then it's far too easy for bigots to conclude that there's no real problem in targeting such minorities. To pile on extra punishment for a hate crime expresses society's abhorrence of such crimes and makes a symbolic statement. I think such symbolism is a highly appropriate thing.
I'm not quite sure that Cohen's primary example, that of "the sad case of Tyler Clementi," the young man who was spied upon using a webcam making love to another young man, is accurately described. Cohen claims that "Immediately, the cry of 'hate crime' was heard throughout the land." A Google search on "tyler clementi video" turned up only one reference containing the phrase "hate crime" in the first seven pages of results. The gay talk show host Ellen Degeneres did not use the phrase at all. She spoke instead of "cyber bullying," a still-bad, but far less serious charge. Cohen of course, does not provide any specific examples of anyone using the "hate crime" phrasing. The phrase was clearly used by a few individuals, but Cohen's description of it as it being "heard throughout the land" seems seriously overblown.
So, does Cohen deserve to regain his liberal credentials? Obviously not. But what really gets to me on this piece is ...where was the editor? Who the heck was in charge of reviewing this piece? Who ignored how shaky this piece was, how tone-deaf it was, how insensitive it was to those who favor hate crimes legislation and approved it for release anyway? What are the standards in use nowadays at the WaPo? Why didn't anyone at the WaPo direct Cohen to speak with someone who approved of hate crimes legislation and get their input on the issue? Is the attitude one of "Aw, he's a good ol' boy. We'll take his word for it."?