"WHITE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BURN TONIGHT!"
That’s how Steven Johnson, a 34-year-old black man from Brooklyn, reportedly announced himself when he entered an East Village wine bar Sunday in Manhattan, carrying three guns, a samurai sword, 153 rounds of ammunition, a box cutter, 100 plastic handcuffs, a spray bottle of kerosene, and a barbeque lighter. "It’s time for all of you crackers to pay," the New York Post quotes him as saying as he doused patrons with gas, and pumped bullets into three others.
"I wanted to kill as many white people as I could," Johnson later told police investigators, who took him into custody after two women ended the 40-minute standoff by wrestling him to the ground.
The New York Times reports that Johnson has been charged with attempted murder and weapons possession—but not a hate crime, at least not yet anyway. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly assured reporters at a press conference that the rampage would "be categorized as a bias crime," but later appeared to contradict himself by saying he "wouldn’t characterize this as a crime" at all. Johnson, who has AIDS, was distraught that his girlfriend had recently died of the same disease, and his mental instability somehow seems to have rendered his crimes less than wholly hateful.
If there’s a silver lining to this horrific turn of events it’s that, Johnson’s best efforts notwithstanding, no one was killed, and his racist attack has exposed the hypocrisy—and futility—of the sort of hate-crime legislation that Senate Republicans wisely scuttled last week. The Johnson attack, which received little coverage outside of the New York media, is one more reminder that what constitutes a "hate crime," as far as much of the establishment press and prosecutors are concerned, has less to do with animus than with politically correct classifications.
Consider Lloyd Robert Jeffress’ suicide attack on a Benedictine monastery in Conception, Missouri, last week. When news first broke that Jeffress, 71, shot four monks, killing two and wounding two others before taking his own life, there was initially some curiosity in the media. The talking heads excitedly speculated about the possibility of his being a victim of priestly sex abuse eager to settle an old score.
But then it turned out that Jeffress’ motivations were far less sensational. He apparently bore some grudge about the way Catholic Church authorities had handled his forty-year-old divorce. From that point, the national media lost interest, and even though Jeffress was clearly set on killing Catholics on the basis of religious affiliation, few described his assault as a "hate crime."
In the hate-crime regime, some classes merit more protection than others, and not all malicious intentions are punished equally. Catholics are apparently free game, as for that matter, are all other Christians. While Steven Johnson was terrorizing whiteys in that Manhattan wine bar last Sunday, he singled out one born-again Christian woman who invoked the Lord’s name. "Don’t you mention Jesus again," he screamed, shoving her down and kicking her in the head. "Where’s God now?"
To appreciate the fullness of the religious double standard, imagine the outrage that would have ensued if, instead of targeting monks at an abbey, Jeffress had chosen rabbis in a synagogue—or imams in a mosque.
One last example: In Birmingham, Alabama, last week, Kimberly King, 26, allegedly got so mad as her boyfriend, Rodney Outlaw, that she pulled up behind his car on a dark, rural road. She then—the fainthearted are now advised to skip ahead to the next sentence—proceeded to hack off his buttocks with a utility knife. King so badly maimed Outlaw that, according to the Associated Press, "investigators initially believed the victim was sexually tortured and dragged behind a car in a possible hate crime" (emphasis added).
When it turned out that Outlaw was the heterosexual victim of a violent girlfriend, not the homosexual victim of violent homophobes, police dropped the hate-crime angle, charging King with attempted murder, but not "hate," as though she were motivated by love, or he suffered any less for it.
To the champions of hate-crime legislation, not all victims—and not all criminals—are the same. Race, sex, religion, or sexual preferences are crucial. They distinguish truly ghastly crimes from the mundane. Which groups are entitled to special protection (or extra prosecution) depends entirely on which biases the self-proclaimed enemies of bias enshrine that day.
To their credit, the Senate Republicans would have nothing to do with it. That leaves their Democratic counterparts to explain why the crimes of Johnson, Jeffress, and King should count any less.