Have you ever used a racial slur?
You may have two answers to that question. There's your initial, visceral, response: No! Of course not! Never!
But then there's the response you'd give if you were being a little more honest: maybe… once or twice. So, if you have, does it make you a racist? In the court of liberal opinion at least, the answer seems to be yes.
In the Trayvon Martin case, in which neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is accused in the shooting death of Martin, the liberal consensus seems to be that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, acted out of racial hatred against Martin, who was black, and thus is guilty of a "hate crime."
According to the FBI, "A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson or vandalism with an added element of bias." Hate crime laws move beyond the criminalization of free speech to outlaw thoughts society deems unacceptable.
Establishing whether a criminal was motivated by bias or hate is nearly impossible because it's nearly impossible to distinguish correlation from causation. Just because a criminal hates a particular group of people and commits a crime against a member of that group does not necessarily mean he was motivated by hatred when he committed the crime in question.
Of course, there's little evidence that Zimmerman hates blacks. The only supporting evidence so far is a recording of the 9/11 call he made as he pursued Martin. In it, Zimmerman appears to say, "They always get away, f----ing coons."
The word "coon" is undoubtedly racist and hateful. But there is doubt about what Zimmerman actually said. It could have been "goons" not "coons."
Let's assume Zimmerman committed a crime in shooting Martin, and that he used the word "coon" in reference to Martin. Does that make the shooting a hate crime?
Many on the left seem to think so, including the 21 Democrats who last week convened a Capitol Hill briefing on racial profiling and hate crimes. The Justice Department and FBI are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.
But it's nearly impossible to know whether Zimmerman acted out of racial hatred. His family and friends, some of whom are black, are adamant that he is not a racist. Zimmerman's lawyer said that he had recently mentored a black boy, taking him to play basketball and participating in fundraisers at the boy's church.
Sometimes people say racist things not because they are racists but because they want to say the most hurtful thing possible at a time when they are overcome by sudden and intense feelings of anger and frustration. It's plausible that that's what happened with Zimmerman.
The threshold for what constitutes a hate crime continues to decline. Last month a jury convicted Dharun Ravi of all 15 charges he faced for using a webcam to spy on his dorm roommate having sex with a man – a verdict, the New York Times reports, "poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology."
Ravi had set up a computer webcam, walked into a nearby friend's room and viewed his roommate, Tyler Clementi, kissing a man he met on a gay website. Ravi didn't see any sex. But he sent Twitter and text messages urging others to watch when Clementi invited the man back two nights later.
Ravi didn't follow through with his plan for a second viewing. But Clementi found out about the webcam and the twitter messages. He jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge three days later.
Ravi was convicted of "bias intimidation," which carries with it a possible sentence of 10 years in prison. The jury concluded that Ravi had not knowingly or purposely intimidated Clementi or his partner when he watched the first time. But it found him guilty of the charge because Clementi could have "reasonably believed" he had been made a target because he was gay, which in New Jersey is sufficient to get a hate crime conviction.
We will probably never know why Clementi jumped to his death. He may have been contemplating suicide long before he met Ravi. He had files on his computer with titles such as "Why does it have to be so painful," and he had taken photos of the George Washington Bridge before he entered Rutgers.
What's more, if Clementi felt intimidated by Ravi and his webcam, why did he have another hook up in his room a few days after the webcam incident? And why did he tell a friend that he wasn't really bothered by what Ravi had seen in the viewing? Ravi was wrong to record Clementi without his knowledge. But it seems unlikely that Ravi was guilty of much more than being an insensitive jerk.
The only thing we know with anything close to certainty is that Ravi doesn't hate gays. Several character witnesses testified that Ravi was not biased against gay people. And the prosecution couldn't produce anyone who had ever heard Ravi express hostile feelings about homosexuality or homosexuals.
In an email to Clementi minutes after he jumped to his death, Ravi wrote, "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship."
Ravi rejected plea deals because they would have required him to admit to bias intimidation. His lawyers said he simply did not believe he had committed a hate crime. In an interview several days after his conviction Ravi admitted to saying some insensitive things about Clement. But he insisted:
"I wasn't biased. I didn't act out of hate and I wasn't uncomfortable with Tyler being gay.… I'm never going to regre not taking the plea.… If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler and that would be a lie. I won't ever get up there and tell the world I hated Tyler because he was gay, or tell the world I was trying to hurt or intimidate him because it's not true."
Proving that a crime was committed out of hatred for the victim is nearly impossible, thus it has become increasingly irrelevant. Today, all that's needed for a hate crime conviction is for the victim to be a member of one of the left's pet constituencies.
Daniel Allot is senior writer at American Values.