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Surprise Right at the Hate Crimes Hearing

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 | 10:12 pm

Reporting from Washington - In a room full of Sikhs, Sen. Dick Durbin engaged New York University Prof. James Jacobs in a debate on the merits of hate crimes laws at a Senate subcommittee hearing last week.

Sitting next to Harpreet Singh Saini, son of the Aug. 5 Wisconsin gurdwara shooting victim, Paramjit Kaur, Jacobs testified that bias laws were unnecessary and harmful for the country.

“The whole movement to recriminalize crimes from other kinds of crimes with making new laws was a wrong turn and is perhaps more divisive than it is to consensus building for the society,” Jacobs said. “Ultimately, it would be dangerous for this society to begin thinking about crime in terms of which groups and races and religions are doing the most offending and which are feeling the most offended against.”

Harpreet Singh had just finished an emotional testimony in which he asked the government to track hate crimes against Sikhs, as it does with other religious and minority groups.

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” he said.

About 400 people, mostly Sikhs, packed the room for the ‘Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism’ hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, on Sept. 19.

“Even now, as we have heard this afternoon, there continues to be debate about what biases against which groups should warrant a specific recognition and extra punishment,” said Jacobs, a law professor and critic of hate crime laws for 20 years.

All panelists, except Jacobs, were ultimately chosen and approved by Durbin, chairman of the subcommittee, said Amardeep Singh, programs director at the Sikh Coalition. “Sen. Durbin’s office entrusted us to locate and prepare a suitable witness from Oak Creek (Wisconsin). Harpreet was our first choice.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-North Carolina, as the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, asked for Jacobs as the sixth panelist. Graham did not attend the hearing.

“Prof. Jacobs was essentially the Republican witness,” Amardeep Singh told SikhNN by email. “This is not surprising since he, like many Republicans, do not agree conceptually with the idea of a hate crime. Let's remember it took a Democratic majority House and Senate to pass the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, after 13 years of struggle.”

After Jacobs’ testimony, Durbin tested Jacobs’ “divisive” comment by asking Harpreet Singh about the impact of the tragedy on the gurdwara.

Harpreet, 18, replied: “People have been wonderful. Everybody has come together now as one. Just for that to happen, this was not a loss, this was a gain.”

Durbin also asked him about the response from non-Sikh communities and from people outside Wisconsin.

“There are a lot of people who come to us now, even Muslims, Christians, Hindus, everybody comes to our gurdwara, and have just been there for us,” Harpreet Singh added. “People have come from around the whole country, (different) states, Washington D.C. They come from New York. People come from India, all over the world. They come just to be with us.”

Durbin then directly addressed Jacobs.

“The supreme court considered your point of view, and surprisingly it was Justice Rehnquist who wrote the majority opinion, which basically rejected your point of view,” Durbin said. “He said we should draw a line between expression, statement of speech, and he said: “a physical assault is not, by any stretch of the imagination, expressive conduct protected by the first amendment.”

Jacobs agreed that hate crimes are not protected by the constitution but insisted that the impact of a hate crime is no different that any other crime.

“Is there any need for us to compare one person’s pain in an heinous murder with another person’s pain and put one on a higher pedestal than the other person,” he said. “Is that going to help us as a society?”

“As it turns out that when we wrote our terrorist laws, we thought it did,” Durbin said. The federal terrorism statute divides incidental specific crimes when they appear to be intended to intimidate or coheres a civilian population or to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion. So we have gone beyond the physical act to what was the motivation behind it and drawing the line when it comes to terrorism.”

Jacobs agreed that terrorists should be subjected to higher punishment.

“It seems that we are talking about intent over instances, where intent is terrorist-inspired, you said there would be a higher penalty,” Durbin argued. “Now when it comes to a hate crime, you say that when intent is inspired by hate, by a person’s religion or race, gender or sexual orientation, then (don’t) enhance the penalty. The two run in parallel.

“I question whether you are consistent in allowing enhanced penalties for terrorism and not for hate crimes.”

More than 150 organizations, led by the Sikh Coalition and including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs, requested the hearing in a joint letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 21, according to the advocacy group’s news release. About a dozen speakers from a variety of organizations held a news conference outside the packed room, immediately following the hearing.

“I think he should have just turned around and looked at the room and realized how much hate crimes impact everyone,” Amardeep Singh said about Jacobs at the news conference. “Look, it’s one thing if someone punches me because I’m wearing a green shirt, that’s between me and the person does not like the color green. But if somebody punches me because I’m wearing a turban, that’s between me and my whole community.

“Prof. Jacobs just totally missed the boat on that point. He should have just turned around and got that this has impacted so many people and hurt so many people.”

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