Senate's pursuit of basic freedom

Hate crimes: Vote to protect all citizens must prevail against promised fight in the House.

June 22, 2000

LIFE AND LIBERTY, rights we hold dear as American citizens, belong to everyone -- not just those who pass muster. The U.S. Senate said as much Tuesday when it voted to strengthen the federal hate-crime law.

Protecting life and liberty, that's what America's all about, right? But for a true answer, we'd need to ask James Byrd Jr., Matthew Shepard or the children led in the daisy chain from the California community center.

Life and liberty are hard to come by when you're singled out for things like skin color, faith or sexual orientation. Mr. Byrd was dragged to death behind a pickup truck because he was black; Mr. Shepard was beaten to death and left tied to a fence because he was gay; the children were terrorized in their day-care center because they are Jewish.

This is unspeakable. Surely all Americans can agree that no fellow citizen deserves to be tortured or killed because of hatred and ignorance. Or can we?

Apparently not, if opposition to this measure is any indication. A little history: The Senate passed a similar bill last year, which died in the House. The battle over the current measure will be heated. Why?

Some argue states already effectively prosecute hate crimes. Others say there's no need to make one category of victims more "special" than another.

The truth of this fight, however, is particularly ignoble: Many lawmakers don't want to appear to be endorsing homosexuality.

Protecting basic human rights is hardly a lifestyle endorsement. For the House to thwart this bill would be a serious mistake.

However, the reservations of some lawmakers make clear a troubling and important point: While laws can condemn unconscionable behavior, they cannot change underlying attitudes.

They won't change the barbed comments in a crowd, the dinner-table jokes, or the hatred and ignorance that spawn them.

It's those attitudes that seriously erode basic rights in our society. Changing those attitudes must come from within each of us, within our families and our communities. Until that happens, the very values at the heart of our nation are at risk.

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