My Turn: Preying on the homeless

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2008

There is a troubling nationwide trend of beating up homeless people, not to rob them but for "the mere sport of it."

While sometimes a gang ritual, it is all too often a copycat crime by "lone wolves" or small groups of thugs. The operative word here is not "sport" or "thugs," but hate.

Hate crimes are becoming more and more associated with aggravating factors that lead to stiffer criminal penalties. The dictionary defines hate crimes as any crime motivated by hostility to the victim due to their color, creed, gender or sexual orientation. An aggravating factor is simply a reason why a person is given a harsher sentence. But that is too clinical for me. Let's look at some real hate events.

Remember Matthew Shepard?

He was the 21-year-old Wyoming man that was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die because he was gay. Found alive some 18 hours later, he never recovered from a coma and injuries deemed too severe to treat. He had a fractured skull, severe brain damage, and lacerations around his head, face and neck. Clearly, he was brutally tortured and most agree this was a hate crime.

Are you aware of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963?

The church was a center for civil rights rallies. Tragically, four young girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The girls were in a basement preparing for a church service. A Ku Klux Klan member was eventually convicted in 1977. In 1980, a disheartening FBI report stated that Director J. Edgar Hoover had blocked useful evidence in the initial investigation. In 1988, a bombing accomplice made a death bed confession, and in 2001 another accomplice was convicted after the case was reopened with the help of several high school students. Were there aggravating factors here? Of course there were. The only good news is that the tragedy drew many moderate whites into the civil rights movement.

Then there is the not-so-gray-area of rape. So what is the difference between someone raping your family member versus a faceless, homeless person? Obviously, both are sickening and despicable acts. Personally, if my family was victimized I would want to rip their face off. But we know that rape is more about the power to humiliate and inflict pain than it is about sex. So the distinction between a family member and the homeless is not the degree of violation - it is awful in any case.

Rather, it is the greater degree of vulnerability and having little or no access to help or justice. The same could be said for the elderly, disabled or children. Nonetheless, I would bet that rape victims in general have a special empathy for rape victims who are homeless.

So at minimum we should agree that recognizing aggravating factors in crimes against the homeless does not diminish the status of other victims. It just says society views these acts as particularly despicable.

Despite many obvious aggravating factors, opponents of hate crime legislation will argue that a crime is a crime and is already punishable under existing laws. Furthermore, that it is better to increase the punishments across the board than to highlight specific crimes. That is too simple minded for me. Why thwart society's right to focus on what we feel is the worst of our abhorrent behaviors?

Recent research released by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows victims suffer more serious psychological effects from hate crimes than from non-bias motivated crimes. So, aggravated effects appear to be real, which is not surprising since hate crimes are often used to terrorize specific groups.

House Bill 292 was introduced by Juneau Representatives Andrea Doll and Beth Kerttula and is designed to further penalize those who violently prey on the homeless. I witnessed the initial debate within the House Judiciary Committee and the bill received a lukewarm reception at best.

Once again, it was argued that elevating the crimes against the homeless would somehow diminish the status of other victims. More specifically, the question was brought up why one violent rape is worse than another. Why, because violence is particularly disgusting when it targets the weak and is wrapped up in hate.

Ironically, aggravating factors appear almost everywhere, from laws governing traffic to homicide. Why not aggravating factors for the homeless? And if House Bill 292 blossoms into a broader understanding of other victims, then it is all the better. Who knows? Maybe it will, like the draw of white moderates to the civil rights movement after the Birmingham bombing in the 1960s.

• Joe Mehrkens is a Juneau resident.

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