A SAD COMMENTARY it is, but across the 50 states hate crimes have been rising so rapidly that laws to punish and contain them have mushroomed in the state legislatures.
Of course it's encouraging that the states -- some 40, at latest count -- have responded on every front from sophisticated information systems to radically stiffened penalties. With racial, ethnic, anti-gay hate crimes continuing to surge, more state actions are predictable when the legislatures reconvene this winter.
But the why of hate crimes has to gnaw at our national conscience. As a dramatically more multiethnic, multiracial century bears down on us, what is it that tempts some Americans to engage in bestial attacks on ''different'' people?
The attacks are lurid, unbelievably reprehensible. Late last summer, Amber Jefferson, a 15-year-old cheerleader in Orange County, California, almost lost her life for having one white and one black parent. Four attackers, allegedly all white, beat her with a baseball bat and split her face open with a shard of plate glass. Surgery to fix the wounds took 10 hours. It will be two years before she regains muscle control in her face.
In September, assailants beat a young, gay Kentucky man with a tire iron, locked him in a car trunk with snapping turtles and then tried to set the car on fire. He was left with severe brain damage.
In the supposedly tranquil Pacific Northwest, a study by the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment found that hate crimes motivated by the race, religion or sexual orientation of the victim rose 20 percent last year. There were 149 assaults, two cross burnings and one murder in the five-state region.
Los Angeles County reported 378 hate crimes last year, with a marked increase in assaults against blacks, Hispanics, Jews and Arabs. In Maryland, assaults, arson, cross burnings and threats based on the victim's race or religion more than doubled, to 686, between 1986 and 1989.
A cynic might tell you that all this is as American as apple pie. The Ku Klux Klan's atrocities are legendary and an ex-Klan official, David Duke, won 40 percent of the vote for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana this year.
Consider just one Civil War riot. Blaming blacks for the war and the draft, between 50,000 and 70,000 whites, largely Irish Catholics, rampaged through New York City torturing and hanging blacks, burning and looting homes. Before order was restored, at least 1,000 people were dead.
But that was before the Emancipation Proclamation, before a century and more of civil-rights laws. And before decades of calls for tolerance from pulpits, in classrooms, on sports fields.
Is there an irreducible bestiality in us still? Yes, if you check the findings of John McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminologist who studied 450 Boston hate crimes. He found, first of all, that such crimes are extraordinarily violent: Victims are three times more likely to require hospitalization than ''normal'' assault victims.
Next, there's cowardice: an average of four assailants for each victim. Most of the assailants are young (two-thirds under 19 in one New York study).
Victims and assailants alike are spread across the racial spectrum. There are few hate crimes in racially ''pure'' neighborhoods. But where there's a mixed population of economically insecure lower working-class peoples -- whites, blacks, Hispanics or Asians -- turf battles easily erupt.
And so-called ''educated'' classes aren't exempt. Anti-Semitic attacks re-erupt regularly, even at such supposedly progressive, enlightened institutions as the University of Wisconsin at Madison. More than 7,000 hate crimes were reportedly launched against gays last year.
In Connecticut and Washington, laws to suppress hate crimes have been opposed by conservatives who take exception to language specifically protecting gays. Nevertheless, anti-hate crime bills are expanding rapidly. Sixteen states will soon have data-collection systems to track the number of hate crimes, making it easier for police to spot trends.
In Massachusetts, New York and California, victims of hate crimes are getting some measure of psychological reassurance from restraining orders that threaten their past assailants with immediate arrest if they approach the person or his property.
Prosecutors are moving to throw the book at hate-crime perpetrators. A Portland (Ore.) jury ordered Tom Metzger, leader of the ''White Aryan Resistance'' that was implicated in the death of a black Portlander, to pay $5 million to the family of the man beaten to death with a baseball bat by skinheads.
With a recession, with continued heavy immigration, the challenge that hate crimes pose for police, for our legislatures, is likely to get even worse.