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So What If von Brunn Hated Jews?

Does a ‘hate crime’ designation really mean anything?

Ari M. Brostoff
August 05, 2009

In addition to being indicted for first-degree murder, alleged U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter James von Brunn was also charged last week with having committed a hate crime. For Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, this charge—which comes a month after the Senate passed new hate crime legislation named for gay murder victim Matthew Shepard—is a perfect illustration of the “folly” of hate-crime laws, which are premised on the notion that some crimes against individuals actually make entire communities less safe. “I am Jewish,” Cohen writes. “But even with von Brunn’s attack, I am more affected by a mugging in my neighborhood that might keep me from taking a walk at night than I am by a shooting at a Holocaust museum.” In the Houston Voice, Rebecca Armendariz fired back: “Just because you, Mr. Cohen, can weigh the effects of a mugging in your neighborhood against the shooting at the museum doesn’t mean everyone can,” then went on to list crime victims, like Shepard, whose sexuality or skin color may have made any neighborhood a dangerous one for them to take a walk. In the San Francisco Chronicle, though, Debra Saunders made a pragmatic argument that aligns with Cohen’s. “It’s hard to understand how a federal hate-crimes law could send a stronger message than life in prison,” she writes. “With or without the Shepard act, Von Brunn could face the death penalty if convicted of first degree murder.”

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.