Ian Curwen, charged with two counts of robbery and bias-motivated conduct, is perplexed by "how this thing"he means a LoDo crime spree by bands of black teens and young adults — "became a racial thing." After all, Curwen told Denver Post reporter Kirk Mitchell, "kids being kids" will sometimes use racial slurs without really meaning them.
It's tempting to mock Curwen's claim, delivered from the Denver jail, as transparently self-serving. Which it most certainly is. Yet it may also contain a kernel of truth for some who participated over the summer and fall in a series of assaults on white and Latino men that were accompanied by racial taunts.
Maybe the name-calling for some of the thugs was, just as Curwen suggests, a meaningless expression of bravado. Maybe the "white boy" and other epithets weren't signs of bias in some cases so much as convenient insults to hurl at an outnumbered and terrified prey.
The distinction wouldn't matter if those charged with the assaults and robberies weren't also being charged under Colorado's bias-motivated statute — aka, hate-crime law — which is supposed to punish and deter dangerous bigots. What if some of those who committed the LoDo crimes are nothing more than violent predators? Does that make them a better brand of criminal than their associates who do hate whites?
I don't think so — and it speaks to the reason I've always been suspicious of hate-crime laws, which punish some illegal acts more severely than other, identical acts purely because of motive.
The victims of the LoDo assaults, Mitchell reported in The Sunday Post, "suffered permanent facial damage, broken bones and cracked skulls." Those injuries would be just as crippling and painful no matter what the motive: bias, greed, group entertainment or a knuckle-dragging form of sadism.
And remember: A criminal's bias can be just as virulent in the absence of racial taunting. If the same 35 people now charged in the attacks had simply kept their mouths shut, they could have beaten solitary white guys to their hearts' content, and for the very same motives, without facing a bias charge. In a very real sense, they're being prosecuted under that statute for their speech and beliefs.
Proponents of hate-crime laws argue that such crimes inflict special emotional impact on their victims, spread fear and alarm through entire communities and polarize society. These are serious arguments, but they're not quite the clinchers that many believe.
To begin with, in 21st century America, it's not clear that hate crimes polarize society so much as unite it against the perpetrators, who represent an increasingly isolated point of view. Nor are hate crimes unique in spreading fear. A few random carjackings or forcible break-ins can set off neighborhood panic, too. So can a child kidnapping from a parking lot or a couple of rapes near a college campus.
To be sure, authorities should let the public know when hate crimes are occurring so potential targets can decide for themselves how to respond — for example, by avoiding the attack zone. There is no excuse for the way Denver failed to issue a public warning at the time of the downtown assaults that acknowledged their racial component.
Does anyone seriously doubt that such warnings would have been issued had the targets, say, been blacks or gays (and that the story would have gained national prominence)? Why the reluctance, then, in this instance?
Still, warning the public is one thing. Punishing some criminals more than others based upon what they say before or during an assault is quite another. I don't particularly care whether punks outside a nightclub detest me because of how I look. I just want them to keep their hands and fists to themselves — and to know that if they don't, the sentence for assault will put them away for a very long time.