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After a self-described militant atheist murdered three Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC, the FBI is now legally obliged to investigate whether this qualifies as a hate crime. They have to check the assailant’s computer and piece together other bits of information in an attempt to discover what precisely motivated his murder.

CNN.com reported on 2/13/15:

They say Craig Stephen Hicks hated religion and that he was riled at the sight of his Muslim neighbors: two of them young women who wore hijabs.

The deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; Yusor Mohammad, 21; and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, had the hallmark of a summary execution: shots fired to the victims’ heads.

But police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said the Tuesday evening shooting appeared to be fueled by rage over a parking space. Hicks’ wife said it was a dispute between neighbors.

The FBI has opened a preliminary inquiry into the killings to look into whether the slayings violated federal hate crime laws or other federal laws, a U.S. law enforcement official said Wednesday. But the official also said so far investigators haven’t found any indications of a hate crime, and evidence suggests the slayings resulted from a confrontation over a parking dispute.

Isn’t it obvious that the crime was based on hate? Whether the hatred stems from the desire of an atheist to kill overtly religious individuals, or exaggerated rage over a parking space, why does it really matter — legally speaking?

This focus on hate crimes brings the realm of politics into the most basic and important function of a government: to prosecute violent criminals who seek to initiate physical harm against others, for any reason.

As our society and government have moved away from the concepts of objective law and limited government, it seems that concern has grown over the political implications of any crime. “Is this a crime motivated by hatred of Muslims? Or was this just a plain old crime?”

Does it really matter — at least where the law is concerned?

Your answer to this question depends on how you view the role of government in society. If you view the role of government as having a responsibility for shaping/encouraging/discouraging certain attitudes or beliefs, then the law should reflect the motivation for the crime with respect to these social or cultural beliefs.

On the other hand, if you view the role of government as a policeman and court system designed to apprehend and prosecute violent offenders (once guilt is objectively established), then you’re indifferent to the distinction between a “hate crime” or just a regular crime.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t sleep better at night knowing that the government goes more aggressively after a killer motivated by particular social or cultural beliefs than not. It troubles me that our government is taking sides on cultural beliefs. That’s not a government’s job. It’s not the government’s job to either be pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim; or pro-this group or anti-that group. It’s the government’s job simply to be anti-criminal; and the most basic criminal of all is a killer.

The CNN story goes on to say: Some allege there’s a double standard at play here. They say that if the situation was reversed, law enforcement and the media wouldn’t hesitate to call it a hate crime or a terrorist act.

The article doesn’t refer to the “some” who allege this. Whoever they are, I wonder what world they’re living in? In today’s cultural climate, it’s highly unlikely that the government will miss an opportunity to prosecute a real or alleged case of hate crime against Muslims. That’s about one of the most politically incorrect murders you could commit, these days, particularly from the point-of-view of the current administration in charge of the federal government.

But the whole point here is: There should not be politically correct or incorrect crimes in the first place. There should only be crimes.

The fact that we now have politically incorrect crimes — with potentially stiffer sentences — means that the government now punishes criminals for two things: One, for doing something one has no right to do, such as initiate force against a person by murdering him; and two, for holding racist or other prejudicial beliefs (deemed improper by government policy).

It’s easy to say you’re in favor of prosecuting “hate crimes.” Who could be against that? Only a homophobic, racist white supremacist, Western male imperialist could be against such a thing, right?

But with a little more thought, you might realize that in supporting the prosecution of “hate crimes,” as opposed to regular crimes, you’re empowering the government to jail people not just for their actions, but also for their beliefs and views. Beliefs and views, by the way, which cannot always be established because they sometimes involve the most private, or even subconscious dimensions, of the human mind and psyche.

As the CNN article states,

It’s a hate crime when violence is tinted with discrimination.

The FBI defines it as “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.”

It’s difficult enough for the government to establish and prove murder, although thanks to modern scientific technology it’s less difficult than ever before.

But how are the FBI and other government agencies/courts supposed to ever objectively prove “elements of bias”? And why should “elements of bias” be against the law in the first place?

Americans are a complacent bunch, at least most of us. We assume that the government will never prosecute people for ideas, beliefs or attitudes; the government will only arrest and jail people for actions.

But if the next Congress or administration decides to start arresting or jailing people for their attitudes alone, what’s supposed to stop them? They’ll be able to argue: “We already prosecute people for hate crimes. We distinguish between crimes motivated by hate and crimes that are simply crimes. So what’s the problem with arresting people for having hateful attitudes?”

And don’t say the First Amendment, either. The First Amendment means nothing when we ignore it in some cases — as with the prosecution of hate crimes — and then decide to uphold it in others. Principles don’t work that way. Once you abandon a principle a little bit in practice, the rest is only a matter of time.

On what is believed to be his Facebook page, Hicks is quite vocal about his atheism. Those alleging it’s a hate crime are passing around a post attributed to him:

“When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the post.

Hicks’ atheism should not be a factor at all. If Hicks had been a Muslim-hating atheist (or a Muslim-loving atheist, for that matter), this should have never been a concern of the government if Hicks hadn’t become violent. So why is it a concern of the government, legally speaking, after the violence took place? All we need to know is that Hicks is capable of murder, and to hold him accountable accordingly.

By itself, it’s thin, said CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara.

It’s “one piece of evidence that suggests that he had a hatred or dislike for the Muslim community — potentially. If that was the only piece of evidence, I don’t think it’s enough, quite honestly,” he said.

This is the whole problem. Instead of protecting us from violent criminals, we now have the federal government protecting us from socially undesirable attitudes — attitudes defined as socially “desirable” or “undesirable” by the government itself. (Now that’s really scary.)

How long before the government starts telling us not only how murderers should think and feel, but how the rest of us should think and feel as well?

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Dr Michael Hurd

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

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