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The Loss of Humanity in 'Hate Crime'

June 14, 1998|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century magazine. He directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in public life

CHICAGO — A "hate crime," everyone calls the killing last week in Jasper, Texas. A crime it certainly was, when three white men allegedly chained a black man to their pickup truck and dragged him two miles on a country road, strewing his severed head, neck and arm as they went. A crime it has to be, because the killing violates law, and because it was a "senseless, or disgraceful act," in dictionary definitions.

Senseless it was to offer a ride to, then allegedly murder James Byrd Jr., the black man who was a "very outgoing, friendly" father of three, a family man whose last act before accepting his fateful ride was to attend the bridal shower of a niece. Disgraceful it was for the trio, some of whose bodies were adorned with Ku Klux Klan tattoos and who reputedly believed in KKK and White Aryan causes, allegedly to kill.

A crime, yes. Shall it be a "hate crime?" If people do not use these words for this brutal, racist killing, what are they saving them for?

One can picture the suspects cackling, as they taunt and beat their victim. A rope would have offered too much dignity; for the alleged killers, a chain, the symbol of bondage and dehumanization, was available. They must have enjoyed themselves wrapping the chain around the victim. Imagine the rush of blood, adrenalin and laughter as they gunned the motor and started dragging Byrd. Did they hear his cries during the first few yards of their jaunt? Did anything that moves humans cross their minds as they must have heard him quickly fall into silence? Did they have any twinge of conscience as they saw his severed body parts in the rear-view mirrors? Only one emotion must have sustained them: hate.

Events like this Texas killing immediately occasion attempts by the good people of Jasper, and citizens from afar, to mourn Byrd, to try to bind up some wounds of his family and the community. Most who gape in horror bewail the racism that evidently inspires such violations of all bounds of humaneness. Instinctively, we ponder what such a transgression tells us about human nature and what to do about what we are told.

Such pondering prompts the question whether the word "hate" is really appropriate. I mention this because definitions always note that hate is "the opposite of 'love.' " Dictionaries then add words for "to hate," like "to feel hostility or animosity." Did the killers know enough of what "love" is to be able to be inspired by its opposite? Did their reputed commitment to white supremacy allow them even to consider regarding this black person, any black person, as a person at all, which means a candidate for love, or hate?

All such questions are prompted by efforts to grope for meaning in anything so heinous as this. By what scale should a nation measure it? What does it tell us about human nature and the human potential for evil? I pile on question marks, benumbed as anyone else as we reach for interpretive aids.

My reaching takes me back three weeks to a meeting at the edge of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and then to a visit to the camp. This is not the place to try to do justice to the meanings Auschwitz might imply or disclose, or to have that hell serve as a basis for comparison to this event or anything else. My recall, however, does bring to mind a debate about what the extreme extremes of human evil--and everyone calls the Jasper incident the worst personal racial incident, the worst hate crime in a half-century--might teach.

Berkeley professor Michael A. Bernstein is helpful in this debate. The Shoah, the Holocaust, he observes after reading the literature on it, is commonly seen as "simultaneously unimaginable and inevitable, at once unique and paradigmatic . . . invoked as both unspeakable and the single, decisive 20th-century event that must be talked about." Its "radical unspeakableness" is what prompts much of the discussion about the Shoah.

On a different scale, the same is true of the lynchings of old, the racial killings of today, the hate crime in Texas. Bernstein warns against using the catastrophic as an absolute by which to measure everything else. It is not helpful to use some "ultimate negative truth" as the means to measure all we need to know about the human heart in its evil tendencies.

Applying this incident to the killing by dragging: "Hate crime" at first seemed too positive a word, because it implied the killers could have felt a range of human emotions, at the opposite end of which is "love." But could such beings love? In their minds and eyes, were not all other humans who did not fit their ideology objects that were other than human, things to be beaten and chained and dragged? Using the word "hate" to describe their feelings seems too congratulatory, too generous. The impulse is to seek some other term for such cases before "hate crime" does make it into the dictionaries.

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