Two phrases that keep cropping up in the news of late leave me wondering what they actually mean, and indeed, whether they have – or even should have – any meaning at all.
They are ‘hate crime’ and honour killing’.
A hate crime, usually involving an act of violence, is one in which the victim has been selected because of his or her race, nationality or religion. Fair enough, I suppose, but when is hate of some kind not the motivation in such a crime? If the victim of a street assault is white and apparently picked randomly, is the crime any less hateful than if it had been inflicted by choice on a non-white person? Is an assault on a white civil servant walking home from the railway station any less reprehensible than that of an assault of, say, an Indian civil servant in similar circumstances? If not, then the term is redundant.
And how is the law supposed to determine the motive of the perpetrator? What if the perpetrator happens to be black, or, as we must say these days, a person of colour? Does that automatically prove that the motivation was racial?
Hate crime is a definition that has been introduced in recent times as part of a worthy campaign to eliminate discrimination in an increasingly multi-cultural society. So far, so good, but as a differentiating factor ‘hate crime’ seems to me far too vague a proposition, and one that inevitably leads to statistical imbalances from which political capital can be derived – and often is – by parties trying to prove a point.
Honour killings involve the murder of someone who is perceived to have impugned the honour of an individual or his family. Such crimes are more prevalent in the Asian community than in any other, the observance of a tradition once prevalent, and in some cases still widely practised – though not legally – in the ‘old country’.
There is, needless to say, no honour in any killing, even when it is trotted out by defence lawyers as a mitigating factor to secure a lesser sentence. As if ancient religious prejudice – the tortured mental state and religious fervour of the perpetrator – represents some kind of excusable factor.
I have no absolutist objection to the two categories. Arguably, they offer necessary shades of complexity in the application of law. But it just seems to me that they seem to be applied rather too prolifically and whimsically, undermining the legal definitions of guilt and innocence, and may distort perceptions of what is really going on in our society.