Hate crimes, according to Gail Mason, a professor at the University of Sydney, aim to condemn not just criminal conduct per se, but also racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and the like. "In this way," she writes in her 2010 paper, "they seek to make a broad moral claim that 'prejudice is wrong' and to thereby 'reinforce pro-social values of tolerance and respect for marginalized and disadvantaged groups.' "
Such crimes fit the bill quite neatly for what happened to the two women killed in Isla Vista, but until just a few years ago, gender-based hate crimes didn't even exist as a category. That changed in 2009, when the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act made gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation protected categories under federal law.
It does matter very much how we categorize things: It has the power to change the conversation, and maybe one day, how we treat women.
Not that these categories have always been particularly helpful in prosecuting violence against women. Just this week, for instance, an Indiana man found guilty of repeatedly raping and drugging his wife for years got off without being sentenced to a single day in prison. He was ultimately given eight years of home confinement. Had his assaults been classified as hate crimes, which typically carry harsher punishments, he may have been given a more suitable sentence.
Indeed, Chris Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union has argued in The New York Times that hate-crime laws, with their associated stricter sentencing, can add an extra deterrent to this kind of behavior — but only if the crimes are classified and talked about as such.
Jim Jacobs, a professor at the New York University School of Law and a coauthor of Hate Crime: Criminal Law and Identity Politics, doesn't see the debate that way. The shooter is dead, he notes, so there's nobody to prosecute, and any labeling would have strictly to do with statistical classification. "It would be interesting to know whether they're going to count it in the statistical reporting," he told National Journal. "It sounds like it should be." And yet, he adds, if every crime involving misogyny were considered a hate crime, it would overwhelm the category.
He also believes the classification is more about symbolic politics than any real retribution. "It's a great opportunity for politicians to stand up and beat their chests," he said.
It's true that there's little chance any legislation will be passed by Congress as a result of this tragedy, no matter how the crimes are classified. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama was helpless to push through anything more than executive actions.
But even if no laws are passed by Congress, and even if there's nobody left alive to be held accountable, Friday's tragedy showed that it does matter very much how we categorize things: It has the power to change the conversation, and maybe one day, how we treat women.