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A SHOT IN THE DARK : Tracking Hate Crimes by Gender Is Commendable, but Will It Save Any Lives?

March 22, 1992|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer.

To the list of motives for hate crimes, gender has at last been added. Attacking another person on the basis of gender can turn a misdemeanor into a felony and can tack another three, maybe seven, years onto a prison term.

But let's drop the neutral language and admit it: On the basis of gender means a woman victim. Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard sponsored the bill after the L.A. city attorney found that the bulk of hate crimes are committed not against gays or religious and ethnic minorities but against women.

Ask what a hate crime is, and you will likely hear about the classic, vicious, often anonymous offense--writing "rice ball" on an Asian family's fence, burning a cross in a black family's yard.

But add gender, and something changes. Hundreds of women are terrorized, intimidated, beaten, raped and murdered simply because they are women. Their killers and abusers are not crazy; they are haters who rage at all women by defiling one. Smash a fist into a woman's face? Nothing personal, bitch.

Consider the volume dealers. George Hennard murdered 23 people in a Texas cafeteria last fall. He hated his mother--hated women, period. Fifteen of his victims were women. He picked them out, table by table. This was a hate crime as surely as if he'd taken pains to aim his Ruger P89 at black faces or brown ones.

Hate crimes grow from the soured soil of fantasy and power. Medieval Arabs and Jews were killed because Christians imagined they were spreading the plague; modern homosexuals are attacked for supposedly spreading AIDS.

In the days before Hennard toted his arsenal into that cafeteria, he took a shine to two young women. He scarcely knew them, yet he watched them and followed them and, like a playwright, fantasized entire lives for them. He gave them names of his choosing, Stacee and Robin, and he wrote a long letter telling them that other women were "vipers" but that both of them were virtuous.

The retail haters rarely make the front page. A man's wife or girlfriend leaves him to establish her own life, and he cannot abide that. He breaks into her house, her apartment, her new space. One of three things happens next: He holds a gun or a knife on her and kills her; he kills her and kills himself; or he kills her and the police kill him. Once in a while, he lives to go to trial. Once in a rarer while, she lives to tell about it.

Tolstoy, of course, never read the newswire when he declared that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. These tales vary only by caliber. If we write about them at all, it is briefly and rendered in headlines as MAN SHOOTS EX-WIFE, SELF.

Someone will tell me this is not a hate crime, only love gone askew. I don't buy it. So far as human variables can be reduced, this is the formula for a hate crime. When a man depersonalizes a woman, she is no longer a woman but Women. He has to reclaim his power; he must resume the relationship or finish it on his terms.

And he does. The Encino man who shot his bride because she wore slacks and left the house, both against his orders, did. And so did the Texas man who fatally shot three in-laws and kidnaped his estranged wife when she wouldn't get back together with him. And so did the North Carolina teen-ager who abducted his ex-girlfriend, then stabbed her to death in front of classmates after she said she didn't want to talk to him.

Adding gender to the hate-crime list is commendable. Its omission cried out for remedy, says Roybal-Allard. But the law directs its message to people who can't hear it. This is a country where people think Judge Wapner sits on the Supreme Court. To expect that they will understand this legal refinement, much less fear it, is asking a lot. Whether his fury is for women or blacks or homosexuals, three more years on a prison sentence will not stay a bigot's hand.

In the offices and courthouses that keep track of these matters, file cabinets will be filled, more file cabinets will be ordered and they too will be filled. Men will go to prison and stay there longer. And the women they kill will stay dead forever.

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