Aaron Kreifels was walking along a fence on October 7, 1998, in Wyoming when he spotted a scarecrow hanging from a post. Confused by this sighting, Mr. Kreifels drew closer to the scarecrow, which he soon learned had not been a scarecrow at all. Instead, it turned out to be a twenty-one year old man by the name of Matthew Shepard. The young man was still alive but was in a coma, and he would remain that way for five days until he passed away on October 12, 1998.
The end of Matthew Shepard’s life is both a tragic and appalling one. Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in a local bar. McKinney and Henderson offered to give him a ride home in their car. However, the two men never planned on taking Matthew Shepard home. Instead, McKinney and Henderson proceeded to rob him, pistol-whip him, and torture him. They drove him to a remote, rural area and tied him to a fence post, where they left him to die.
When the body was examined by the doctors at the hospital later that day after he had been discovered, they found that he had suffered several fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body’s ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate, and sadly, this young man lost his life.
How could two men do such a thing to a fellow human being? Better yet, why did they do it? The answer to that is sickening within itself. Matthew Shepard was a homosexual. He was targeted, he was tortured, and he was killed because he was different than some of us. At their trial, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had the audacity to blame Shepard for his own death, claiming they were victims of temporary insanity brought on by alleged sexual advances by Matthew, something that has become known as the “gay panic defense.” Both men ended up pleading guilty to two consecutive life sentences in prison each for their heinous crimes.
Over a decade later, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the 1969 United States federal hate crime law to include violent crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The original hate crime law applied to crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin, and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The signing of this act into law sparked quite a controversy across the country, with certain political and religious groups claiming this was the government attempting to silence their free speech in opposition to homosexuality. Others argued that this law was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The common argument centered on the idea that “murder is murder” or that “all murder occurs because of hate.” As a writer for the Dallas Morning News stated, “It should be clear that hate-crime legislation has nothing to do with improving our law but rather with creating favored political classes.”
Then there are those who support this legislation, such as Washington Post contributor David Saperstein, who said, “We know all too well that hate crimes are different from other crimes. They are more than mere acts of violence. They are more than individual murders, beatings, and assaults. Rather, they seek to terrorize entire groups of Americans. Hate crimes are nothing less than attacks on those values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom. They erode our national well being. Those who commit these crimes do so fully intending to tear at the too-often frayed threads of diversity that bind us together and make us strong. They seek to divide and conquer. They seek to tear us apart from within, pitting American against American, fomenting violence and civil discord.”
The idea that “murder is murder” makes sense, in the vaguest interpretation of the phrase. When it comes to the American criminal justice system though, the taking of one person’s life by another is not as clear cut. The law holds several different distinctions for the killing of a human being, such as first degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, or negligence. Each charge applies differently based on certain circumstances. The legal jargon can become quite confusing, but the point is that there are already distinctions between one murder and another. Hate crime distinctions are no different.
If someone commits a violent crime against another human being simply because the victim happens to be gay, or black, or female, the law says we as a society will not tolerate such behavior. Of course, murder is wrong no matter how you spin it. However, there are special cases when a harsher punishment needs to be enforced, not only for the victim, but for society as a whole.
As a libertarian, I am a believer in personal freedom and limited government. I understand the mistrust of government that has been growing across the country over the past several years. However, when it comes to hate crime legislation, whether or not you agree with homosexuality, we must not let our own fears and our own prejudices oppress the freedom of others. If we are to retain our own liberty, we must ensure our fellow citizens and our fellow human beings have the same rights and the same protections we do.
What happened to Matthew Shepard should never have occurred. We must learn that our own beliefs are not the final authority — that with our civil rights come civil responsibilities. Our Founding Fathers believed in the republic – not in tyranny, not in anarchy, not in mobacracy – but in the rule of law. As Jack McCoy once said on Law & Order, “Without the law, there would be no freedom. Without justice, there would be no law.” Disregarding hate crime legislation because you disagree with those protected under it transforms us all into the very tyrannical beings we claim to be against.