Did vengeful Americans unleash an orgy of anti-Muslim violence in the wake of 9-11? You’d think so to judge by the media coverage that followed the recent release of the FBI’s 2001 hate-crimes report. Reality’s another story.
First, the media version. “According to the FBI, hate crimes in America targeting Muslims or people who just appear to be Middle Eastern surged in the aftermath of 9-11,” Dan Rather announced grimly. “There were 500 such hate-motivated attacks reported last year; the year before, just 28.” Headlines in The Washington Post (“Hate Crimes Against Arabs Surge, FBI Says”), the Los Angeles Times (“Hate Crimes Against Muslims Soar, Report Says”) and many other papers followed suit. The Times and many other outlets repeated the alarming figure that anti-Islamic crimes were up 1,600 percent.
But as usual, when the media starting warning of an epidemic of “hate crimes,” there’s a lot less to this story than they’d have you believe. And there’s a bigger story they’ve missed altogether.
To begin with, though the percentage increase sounds dramatic, it doesn’t represent very many actual crimes. The report found 481 anti-Muslim “incidents” (not 500 “attacks,” as Rather claimed) involving 546 separate offenses. For perspective, the FBI found about 11.8 million crimes in 2001, so those driven by anti-Islamic bias account for less than one crime in 21,000. The hate-crimes report also found 334 known offenders behind the attacks on Muslims – this, in a country of more than 280 million people. That’s not quite a ratio of one in a million (more like one in 838,000), but it’s not a lot. You can find a lot more people who’ll say they’ve been abducted by aliens.
More telling, though, is the kind of crimes the FBI found. Say “hate crimes” (much less “attacks”) to most people and they think violence, a la Matthew Shepard or James Byrd. Yet the number of murders the report attributes to anti-Muslim sentiment is zero; the number of aggravated assaults, just 27.
So what were these crimes? By far the largest number (296) fell into the nebulous catchall category of “intimidation” – a category which the FBI doesn’t use outside of hate-crimes reports. At worst, these are “low-level offenses,” note New York University sociologists James Jacobs and Kimberly Potter in their book “Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics” (Oxford University Press, 1998) – “the ad hoc disputes, arguments and fights that frequently erupt in a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious society.” Largely these offenses amount to talk, and in many states, it can mean no more than saying something someone else doesn’t like. (A typical statute in Illinois defines it as “expos[ing] any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”) Throw in the vandalism numbers (123) – graffiti and the like – and you’ve got most of the anti-Muslim offenses. Nasty? Yes. A crime wave? Hardly.
And that’s the story the media have missed. Ever eager to detect virulent bigotry lurking in the American heart, they haven’t noticed how rare such bigotry has become. We just don’t do lynchings in this country any more. Even when our country gets attacked, we don’t take out our anger on the nearest member of the racial or religious group to which the attackers belong. By and large, we judge them as individuals (if we think to judge them at all), and virtually none of us take it upon ourselves to pronounce sentence and execute punishment.
The same is true of hate crimes across the board, by the way. The number based on race, religion, sexual orientation, et al., is invariably a tiny fraction of total crimes – less than one in 1,000 – and also mostly low-level. The majority of hate crimes in 2001 consisted of “intimidation”; the number of hate-crime murders – out of nearly 16,000 total murders nationwide – was 10.
We know the names of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd not because their cases are so common but because they’re so rare.
Of course, there’s a political payoff in playing up hate crimes. Occasionally we learn of fake hate crimes, ranging from spray-paint on a sidewalk to the Arab Arizona State University student last year who pretended to have been assaulted and tied up in a bathroom stall (and got a lot of sympathetic press, till the police found some holes in his story). Since culprits need not be caught, a hate crime can be fabricated pretty easily. We don’t know if such cases account for a significant number of events in the hate-crimes report, but we do know that activists and media have an incentive to exaggerate the problem in the public’s eyes.
“Minority groups have good reasons for claiming that we are in the throes of an epidemic,” Jacobs and Potter write. “An ‘epidemic’ demands attention, remedial actions, resources and reparations.” As for the media, Jacobs and Potter point out that while crime sells, it sells better if you add a dash of racism, sexism or homophobia. “Garden-variety crime has become mundane,” they point out. “The law-and-order drama has to be revitalized if it is to command attention.”
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” the devil announces his strategy to “direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger.” We Americans certainly have real vices, and we shouldn’t spend too much time patting ourselves on the back for what ought to be simple common decency. But we should direct our energy against the vices that pose the greatest danger. In the real world – a place far from the fevered liberal imagination – hate crimes just aren’t high on that list.
Matt Kaufman is the editor of Boundless, a website for college students dealing with political-correctness controversies and published by Focus on the Family.