No Outlawing Hate

Specifically, Blair spoke of deportation and exclusion on the grounds of “fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person's beliefs, or justifying or validating such violence.”

Responses within Britain have ranged from applause for Blair's “daring” move to condemnation of his “neo-McCarthyite hectoring.”

Debate is a good thing. In times of crisis like that which Britain is experiencing, there is always a danger of overstepping boundaries and unnecessarily curbing hard-won civil rights like free speech or freedom of association.

On the other hand, for the sake of the common good, public authorities must take vigorous steps to ensure the safety of their people, and visitors must be willing to comply with the reasonable regulations of their host nation. Open debate helps to strike the right balance.

Yet despite good intentions, hastily crafted, imprecise language can befoul the whole enterprise. “Fostering hate” and “advocating violence” are not the same thing and should not be treated as such. Speech or actions intended to incite others to violence or sedition differ radically from criticism of others or their actions that can easily be construed as hate speech.

Moreover, loose language about “fostering hatred” also smacks of ill-begotten hate-crime legislation that has plagued the United States in recent years.

At first blush, hate-crime and hate-speech legislation seem like praiseworthy ideas. Racism, sexism, jingoism and a host of other “isms” grounded in hate are great moral and social evils, and legislation designed to eradicate the root cause holds tremendous appeal. As Americans, we tend to gravitate to legal solutions for social ills.

But in this case, “There oughtta be a law” just doesn't work.

Four specific problems come to mind.

The first concerns the limits of law. Civil legislation exists to promote the common good, in part by prohibiting certain actions that are harmful to the public order. It is beyond the competence of the law to judge the interior of man and his intentions, or to oblige citizens to love their neighbor, as desirable as this would be.

Hate signals a deep human and moral problem, but only becomes a criminal problem when one's behavior contravenes the law. True, we do investigate motive and premeditation, but only to ascertain guilt and the level of personal responsibility involved in a given act. The matter of criminal law, however, is not internal dispositions but external activities.

Second, why single out hate crimes among all possible crimes of passion? Hate is a terrible passion, but then again so is anger. Must we also draft ad-hoc legislation for envy crimes, greed crimes, and lust crimes?

Nothing seems to indicate that hate crimes are intrinsically more evil than crimes motivated by pride, jealousy, anger or any other passion of the human heart. In addition, many wicked deeds are motivated by a combination of these passions and elude categorization altogether. Defining crimes by the underlying passion is an exercise in futility and arbitrariness.

Third, hate-crime legislation implies not only the motivation of hate, but hate toward some abstract “class” of persons, determined by race, religion, sexual orientation or some other distinguishing trait.

According to proposed legislation, it is not enough that a criminal “hate” the person assaulted, murdered or robbed; he has to hate the entire category of persons to which that individual belonged. By this rationale, if I kill my neighbor because I hate him as a person, somehow it would be less grave than killing him because he is Jewish, or Asian or gay.

Yet how is hatred for a group worse than hatred for an individual? And who will decide which categories of people are to be included in the catalogs of those not to be hated? Such legislation exacerbates rather than alleviates our obsession with “classes” and undermines the democratic ideal of judicial impartiality.

Fourth, not all hatred is evil. We rightly hate pedophilia and prostitution and bigotry. Without the hatred of racism we would have had no civil rights movement. The law is ill equipped to judge the reasonableness of one's hate, but can only judge its consequences when a person allows himself to be carried by it to criminal activity.

Moreover, hate-crime legislation cannot possibly distinguish between hatred of the person and hatred of actions. In June of last year, Pastor Ake Green of Borgholm Pentecostal Church in eastern Sweden was sentenced to a month in prison for preaching against homosexuality. He didn't advocate aggression towards homosexuals, but restated the biblical understanding of homosexual activity as evil.

Yet according to the democratic ideal, rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, hate of persons is evil, but not all hate of actions or ideas is irrational or wrongheaded. A woman who kills a male chauvinist is guilty of murder, but her crime was not her hatred of sexism, but her chosen method of combating it. Her punishment should reflect the evil of her action, which is neither aggravated nor attenuated by her righteous hatred of chauvinism.

Combating terror means combating the purveyors of terrorism and cutting off seditious activity at the root. Yet to do so effectively we must carefully delineate what sort of activities will not be tolerated.

Anger, greed and hate will always harbor in the human heart and no amount of legislation will completely remove them. Incitement to violence against the innocent for any cause, righteous or unrighteous, must be unambiguously opposed.

Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is the dean of theology and professor of ethics at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.