The brutal murder last month of Matthew Shepard-the twenty-one-year-old gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten and tied to a cross-like fence to die-struck at the conscience of the nation. It was not only the sheer sadism and rancor of the crime that affected Americans, but the sense that Shepard’s rights had been violated simply for being who he was.
Hate-motivated crimes have their own pedigree, their own smell. They are acts of criminal violence-among them kidnapping, torture, and murder-but their destructive capacity stems from a motivational intensity that sets them apart. When James Byrd, Jr., a disabled African-American, was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, last June, every reflective American knew instinctively that this crime was motivated by a particular loathing born of prejudice.
Crimes of this sort can be triggered by a victim’s demeanor, color, status, ethnicity, speech, etc., which become the pretext for unleashing blind fury. For potential victims, the threat of such violence is a constant source of vulnerability, unease, fear, even terror. These violent acts of bigotry demand forceful and consistent redress, for they strike at the heart of the solidarity that binds society together; they undermine the very notion of equality.
Twenty-one states have laws that increase the penalties for hate crimes related to race, religion, color, national origin, and sexual...