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Hate Crimes, Exceptionalism, and the State's Order to Kill

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December 29, 2012


The New York Times reports that 31-year-old Erika Menendez is being held after having pushed a man, Sunando Sen, onto the subway tracks in Queens.  Sen was killed by an oncoming train.

Already, the machinery of hate crimes legislation is coming into force.  Menendez, who is from the Bronx, as the Times tells us (I'm always unclear as to what the neighbourhood has to do with a perpetrator's crime) “has been charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime” by the Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney.

As regular readers of my work and that of Against Equality know too well, I'm against the idea of hate crimes legislation (HCL) because it's an ineffective tool against crime or violence and it does little more than expand the prison industrial complex. The short reason why: HCL came about because it was the only way that African Americans could gain any kind of redress at a time when no white person would be prosecuted for crimes against them.  Over the last many decades, however, HCL has become a way to do several things at once: Make crime and violence a matter of personal, individual “hatred”, use the concept of “hatred” to assume that this somehow makes a crime/violence worse as an example of group-level persecution, and extend penalties so that what have been, say, a sentence of months or some years can be extended to life or even, with a relentless and aggressive prosecutor, the death penalty.  The longer reasons why can be found in Against Equality's recent and third book, Prisons Will Not Protect You.  Many others can be found in our archive.

But as the case of the NYC incident indicates, HCL is in fact utterly indadequate, and the Times story - which will doubtless be further developed on similar lines - is a fascinating case study of how the media inadvertently or deliberately goes about peddling the notion of hate crimes as a solution, while using the discourse of exceptionalism.  Take, for instance, the man's neighbours being quoted about the character of the victim, Sunando Sen. 

“He was a very educated person and quite nice,” Mr. Suman said. “It is unbelievable. He never had a problem with anyone.”

Mr. Sen’s roommates could not understand what might have led to the fatal encounter on Thursday. “This guy is so quiet, so gentle, so nice,” said M. D. Khan, a taxi driver who also lives in the apartment.

I don't fault the reporters for their desire to provide  a back story about Sen.  But I have to wonder: What would they have done if the man had turned out to be, say, a religiously fanatic Muslim man?  Already, on Twitter, NYT journalist Sarah Maslin Nir writes, “The murdered man loved hot mugs of tea, Indian Classical music & peace. Did not practice Hinduism anymore, bc he felt religion was divisive.”

Regardless of whether or not these details make it into her final story, the questions I've posed to Nir on Twitter are worth asking: Would it make a difference if he'd been a lazy and fervently religious man, who disliked music and fought with neighbours? As a journalist, I understand the need to provide a fuller narrative about both victims and perpetrators, but is it impossible to do so without resorting to the discourse of exceptionalism?  Would Sen's life become less valuable if it turns out that he was anything less than a kind and peaceful man?

I've written about the discourse of death and exceptionalism before, and I wish I didn't have to keep referencing it every time the media brings up the lives of victims. The problem with this kind of immediate, knee-jerk valorisation of victims as perfect or near-perfect humans is that it forestalls any possibility of a larger cultural evaluation of and conversation about the conditions that create such violence in general and such viciously xenophobic crimes in particular.  When we focus on who commits such acts, we conveniently forget why they happen in the first place.  And then, of course, it allows us to forget a simple fact: no one actually deserves to die a violent and senseless death.

In the case of such crimes involving outright xenophobia, we might want to consider the fact that Menendez was not a lone, hateful individual but someone who, at 31, has spent a good portion of her adult life imbibing the more general xenophobia exercised by the state in the wake of 9/11, a xenophobia which guarantees that any brown man with a beard or anyone identified as Muslim or foreign will be pulled aside by TSA for a “random” security check.  There are countless examples of heightened fear and paranoia on the part of any number of official and semi-official agencies to prove that Menendez's apparent and undifferentiated fear and loathing for “Hindus and Muslims” is sanctioned by the larger culture and state apparatus around her.

Which brings me back to the issue of the victim and his love of tea.  I don't disrespect either, but I really don't want to know any more of that.  I also don't want to read a slew of stories brought back by reporters, in the Times or elsewhere, of Menendez's life history and of how, perhaps, her neighbours and friends may or may not have seen early signs of her will towards violence and hatred.  It's not that they don't matter but that these sorts of stories provide nothing more than a cacophony of personal testimonies that hide a simple and inscrutable fact: The problem is not that individuals like Menendez are temporarily or permanently insane; the problem is that we live in a culture and state that deliberately marks people like Sen as inherently unworthy of existence and deserving of the kind of intense scrutiny that finally drove Menendez to kill him. 

Consider, for instance, that the trains of  NYC's subway system and that of Chicago, where I live, are dotted with posters that constantly admonish passengers, “If you see something, say something.”  Surely, it's not too much to surmise that this injunction, appearing like something out of an Orwellian nightmare, constantly re-inscribed into the subconscious of millions of people on a daily basis, had something do with whatever finally caused Menendez to snap and do the unthinkable.

Erika Menendez may have pushed Sunando Sen onto the rails, but if we are to think about what really killed him, we might consider the larger killing machine: A state that first defined him as unworthy and will now, ironically, seek to enforce cruel punishment upon someone who simply carried out its implicit orders to trust no one.

See also: "On Death and Exceptionalism."

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