HAS ANYONE seen Jesse Jackson around lately? Kweisi Mfume? Al Sharpton? For persons whose political antennae are ordinarily so sensitive that they can pick up racial tremors a thousand miles away, they seem to have overlooked a possible hate crime right here in the vicinity of the nation's capital.
In April, a man armed with a knife attacked and killed an 8-year-old boy named Kevin Shifflett as he played outdoors in the Del Ray section of Alexandria. Then he fled, apparently by cab. Police searching for the suspect initially found the trail cold, then focused their attention on a paroled felon whose DNA matched evidence found in the getaway cab.
As it happens, the so-far-unnamed suspect is black, and Kevin Shifflett was white. The Washington Post has turned up evidence to suggest the suspect had racial motives for the slaying. It seems that a witness to the attack says the suspect was yelling "something to the third-grader about hating white people before slashing his throat." Police previously had not mentioned the racist overtones of the attack.
There's more. Police have possession of a note found in a hotel room where the suspect had been staying which says, "Kill them raceess whiate kidd's anyway." There's more still. The suspect had previously been convicted of malicious wounding following a 1993 incident in Alexandria in which he brutally attacked a stranger with a hammer. The victim in that assault, Leonard Riddle, says his attacker called him "whitey" before the beating commenced. Sounds like hatred from here.
So where are Mr. Jackson and company? Not here. It seems that only white-on-black crime, not the reverse, constitutes a hate crime. In a June 28 column in this newspaper, columnist Paul Greenberg cited a scholar who says a pre-biblical code of justice seems to apply now. "The crucial consideration becomes not an eye for an eye and a hand for a hand, but whose eye and hand are involved."
The point here is not that the suspect in the Shifflett case should face hate-crime charges, but rather that the notion of hate crimes per se is morally bankrupt. Boys like Kevin Shifflett warrant no less protection than anyone else. The sooner that discussion of specious concepts like hate crimes ends, the sooner authorities can deal with more important questions, such as why a man with the suspect's record was out on parole at the time of Kevin's slaying. Answering questions like that may improve the chance that the parents of Kevin's peers won't have to cope with the sorrow his parents did.
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