On October 27 2018, eleven Jewish people were killed in the worst anti-Semitic attack the United States has ever witnessed. Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Saturday morning services and shot eleven innocent people for no reason other than their religious affiliation. During that same week, two African Americans were gunned down in a grocery store in Kentucky and an Indiana women was arrested after sending a letter of hate targeting African American’s in her community. These are examples of hate crimes; acts against identifiable groups including those distinguished by colour, race, religion disability etc. They are crimes not directed at a single individual, but the group to which the individual belongs. While we seem to be living in a modern era with Charters of Rights and Freedoms and Declarations of Human Rights, it seems as though the number of hate crimes are increasing year after year and so I find myself asking the question how can they be prevented?
One of the primary mechanisms in preventing hate crimes is through legislation and direct state intervention. Enacting legislation sends the message that hate crimes are taken seriously, there are severe consequences attached and serves as an accountability mechanism to ensure laws are properly applied. However, many argue that by enacting legislation, it encourages individuals to “view themselves not as members of our society, but as members of a protected group” (Briana Alongi, “The Negative Ramifications of Hate Crime Legislation: Its Time to Revaluate When Crime Laws are Beneficial to Society (2006) 37:1 Pace L Rev at 1). Some also argue that they violate constitutional rights due to the vagueness of the legislation. While legislation ensures justice to victims, it seems as though law is not enough to combat the issue as strong consequence and blatant condemnation does not deter individuals from continuing to commit hate crimes.
The Criminal Code outlines four ways hate crimes can be expressed; promoting genocide, public statements and gestures inciting hate, deliberately promoting hatred of a group, or vandalizing religious property with hateful mischief (“What is a Hate Crime”, CBC News (15 June 2011). As a hate crime is usually based on a penal sanction outlined in the Criminal Code, the perpetrator needs both the actus reus and mens rea to be prosecuted. However, courts must prove that the individual was also motivated by bias in committing the act in order for it to constitute a hate crime. If an individual similar to Robert Bowers runs into a synagogue screaming “kill the Jews”, bias is not difficult to prove. However, it is often difficult to determine whether bias played a role in the commission of the crime.
Growing up, it seems as though another primary mechanism was the adage that ‘education leads to prevention’. The hope was through education, people would become more tolerant of others and their differences and learn about past injustices and genocides so history would not repeat itself. As a result, districts, communities and cities enacted policies encouraging education and awareness as a way to prevent future crimes. For example, the New York State Police issued a statement that promoted setting good examples, working with schools businesses and communities and offering training programs (New York State Police “Crime Prevention: Putting a Stop to Hate Crimes” (ND)).
Educators have asserted that because radical attitudes toward others are learned, they have a tremendous opportunity to prevent future crime from a young age (US Department of Education “Preventing Youth Hate Crimes” (2018).
Although education can be used as a preventive mechanism, it can also have opposite effects. James Keegstra was a teacher at Eckville High School who made anti-Semitic statements in his classroom. During trial he attempted to argue that his assertions were valid based on freedom of speech but subsequently charged with promoting hatred against an indefinable group under the Criminal Code (R v Keegstra, 1990).
It is naive to think that we will be able to completely abolish all hate crimes. However, the preventative measures that are already in place are simply not enough. Therefore, the question remains, what more needs to be done? There is no clear definitive answer, however I contend that we cannot sit back and watch as the results of the next hate crime flashes across our television and computer screens. I am a Jew; I have been a Jew my whole life and I am proud to be Jewish. I graduated from a Jewish day school and currently attend a synagogue that is ironically called The Tree of Life. As a Jew and a future lawyer, it is extremely important to me that people of all races, religions, colours etc… continue to speak out about injustices that not only have affected them, but others around them. A quote by Robert Niemoler resonates with me:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” (Martin Nielmoller “First They Came for The Socialists”).
By speaking out, we can stand up to the rhetoric and form a stronger collective positive voice against the negative voices promoting hate crimes. A community of voices shows solidarity and sends a message to the victims that they do not need to hide their true identities but to be proud of who they are. Instead of using the freedom of expression and thought contained within the Charter to justify the promotion of hate, it should instead be used as a mechanism to squelch hate. Therefore, for the sake of the eleven victims of the Pittsburgh shooting, or the African Americans in Kentucky and Indiana, our voices of solidarity must be heard.
Briana Alongi, “The Negative Ramifications of Hate Crime Legislation: Its Time to Revaluate When Crime Laws are Beneficial to Society" (2006) 37:1 Pace L Rev
“What is a Hate Crime”, CBC News (15 June 2011), Online
New York State Police “Crime Prevention: Putting a Stop to Hate Crimes” (ND) online: New York State <https://troopers.ny.gov/Crime_Prevention/Violence/Hate_Crimes/> [perma.cc/LH5Q-SPPD]
US Department of Education “Preventing Youth Hate Crimes” (2018) online: US Department of Education <https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/HateCrime/page1.html> [perma.cc/U6YV-MGSR]
R v Keegstra,  3 S.C.R. 697
“Martin Nielmoller “First They Came for The Socialists”” online: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum