It’s difficult to summon a scintilla of sympathy for the Rehberg brothers. Twenty-year-old Justin was convicted Friday of criminal harassment and inciting hatred against blacks by setting a two-metre cross ablaze last February in front of the Hants County home of a mixed-race couple. His brother Nathan faces similar charges this week.
But since this decision may be precedent-setting, it’s worth asking whether we want to set this precedent. The law requires proof not only that the accused did the deed but also that their “motivation” was to incite hatred.
Justin’s lawyer argued the motivation for this crime—his client pleaded guilty to criminal harassment—was something else.
Justin was convinced Michelle Lyons—a distant cousin who shared the house with her black partner and their children—was spreading rumours the Rehberg brothers had herpes. In his dumb-as-dirt way, Justin lashed back, zeroing in on her partner’s race and upping the offensive ante in the process.
The intent, his lawyer insisted, was personal vengeance.
It’s complicated, of course. Cross-burning carries symbolic connotations. That this torching failed to ignite racist nutbars says more about the community, which rallied to support the family, than the act, or those who perpetrated it.
Still, we need to be careful when we attach the most heinous intent—inciting hatred is heinous—to messy personal vendettas.
One criminologist argued after the verdict that “hate laws were created for this reason… We need to prosecute more, not less.”
I’d suggest hate crimes are, and should be, so reprehensible we must designate them such only in clear-cut cases.
Consider another recent case involving a New York street gang that discovered one of their recruits was gay. They allegedly beat and sodomized him, tortured another gay man, then beat up that man’s roommate and brother. Police call those hate crimes. No kidding.
In a slightly different context, American comedian Jon Stewart got it exactly right during his recent Rally to Restore Sanity when he urged caution in our use of language. We must learn to “distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez.”
We also need to distinguish between real race haters and dumb-assed vengeance seekers.