On Jan. 29, Alexandre Bissonette walked into a Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center and opened fire. He killed six people and injured five. Twenty minutes after the shooting, Bissonette turned himself in to police. This was the most recent in a string of recent hate crimes encouraged by the rise of white nationalism.
The shooting occurred shortly after Trump banned citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Trump’s Muslim ban and shared photos of him welcoming refugees into the country on social media, white nationalism and Islamophobia are alive and well in Canada. In 2015, the country finally ended its on-and-off legal battle to prevent women from wearing the niqab, an Islamic veil that covers the bottom half of the face, during their oath of citizenship. Canadian conservatives also proposed a government hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices,” meant to portray Muslims as backward criminals. These political expressions of Islamophobia originate from the same xenophobic impulse as Bissonette’s crime. Moreover, as white nationalism continues to spread and strengthen, hate crimes like this will probably keep happening.
Fortunately, Canada’s hate crime legislation has the power to stop, or at least slow down, the spread of violent hate crimes. Canadian hate crime laws are strong enough that Bissonette will likely be charged with a hate crime. This hate crime charge will mean that Bissonette’s crime will be analyzed and tried in a different category than other types of violent crime. It will affect the public perspective on the crime, ensuring that the general public knows that the crime was primarily motivated by prejudice. It will also expose Bissonette to the possibility of harsher penalties.
Many people believe that hate crime legislation is unethical or unfair because it puts crimes with prejudiced motives in a far more severe category than other crimes. These people think that all violent crimes stem from a form of hate, and therefore prejudice-fueled crimes should not receive special treatment. While this belief makes sense in theory, in practice, hate crimes function differently from other crimes.
Most of the time, people commit violent crimes against people they know well, either a family member, a significant other or a close friend. These crimes usually stem from an economic motivation, a pattern of abuse or both. Since these types of crimes tend to be specific to the relationship between the criminal and victim, they do not necessarily encourage others to commit similar crimes.
Hate crimes, on the other hand, absolutely encourage others to commit similar crimes. Bigots often feel prevented from expressing their hatred based on the fact that their bigotry is not socially acceptable. However, once someone commits a hate crime, all of the similarly prejudiced people who are aware of that crime suddenly feel much less alone in their bigotry. The hate crime, whether it be an act of violent terrorism or something less severe like offensive graffiti, makes the idea of committing a hate crime much more accessible to bigots. Punishing people who commit hate crimes more severely than people who commit other types of crimes discourages the spread of hate crimes, since it sends the message that prejudice-based crimes are especially intolerable and societally unacceptable.
Furthermore, the motivations of hate crimes are very different from those of other types of crime. These differences have to do largely with how we define the word “hate.” While both types of crimes might be motivated by some form of “hate,” hating someone because they have wronged you is completely different from hating someone because of their race or religion. This is not only because of the power of violent prejudice to spread like wildfire when it is expressed publicly, but also because bigotry, unlike personally motivated hatred, applies to a massive group of people. When someone commits a hate crime, they don’t exclusively hate the victim of that crime. They hate the entire identity group to which the victim belongs. This means that hate crimes have a much wider scope of influence than other types of crimes.
Specific hate crime legislation is necessary to protect the safety of marginalized people. Bigotry encourages more bigotry, and in order to prevent hate crime from growing any more than it already has, it is important that the victims of hate crimes can see their aggressors be brought to justice in a way that fits the uniquely poisonous nature of their crime.