This afternoon, a three-day manhunt for Jacob Robida ended with a highway pursuit, a gunfight, and his capture. He had been pulled over by Arkansas police officer Jim Sell for a routine traffic stop. Robida shot and killed Officer Sell, 63, and led Arkansas state troopers on a chase into the town of Norfolk, at which point he killed an unidentified woman riding in his car before turning his gun on police. He was wounded twice and remains in critical condition at a hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
Robida's spree began on Wednesday night when he entered a gay bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He ordered two drinks before brandishing a hatchet and attacking two male patrons. Then he pulled out a pistol, shot both men and a third customer, and fled the scene.
This has been described as a "hate crime." Robida, a high school dropout, was known to disparage blacks and Jews and decorated his bedroom with swastikas; and although his friends said he had never exhibited hostility toward gays specifically, he chose a well-known gay bar to stage his massacre. He apparently even asked the bartender whether it was a gay bar before ordering his drinks, and seemed satisfied when assured that it was.
If Robida survives, he will face multiple counts of first-degree murder. In Arkansas, a jury may impose the death penalty for the intentional killing of a police officer.
But Robida would also be subject to federal hate crime charges; and given the high profile of his case, it's almost certain the US attorney would prosecute. And that's what bugs me. Because we shouldn't get into the business of becoming thought police; but more importantly, that idea cheapens what Robida did.
Calling him a homophobe aligns him with a million other men who roll their eyes at Will & Grace, with a nation that chuckles along with the saucy antics of Queer Eye, with every guy who's ever joked about his locker-room buddies being "queers" or "fags." This isn't that. He didn't yell insults at a gay couple in a park or spraypaint slurs on a billboard. He smashed two men in the head with an axe and killed two people with a pistol. This wasn't a hate crime. This was murder.
Eight years ago, the state of Texas made headlines when three men committed a hate crime. The story erupted into a national debate about racism, about black/white relations, and about legislating to protect minorities against cruelty and oppression; and amid all the clamor about the relatively polite term "hate crime," many people lost sight of the fact that a man had been chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles — that he had remained alive until the very end, when his right arm and head were torn off.
These acts aren't hate crimes. They're murder. And that act cannot, must not be robbed of its atrocity. To call it something else cheapens the act and irreparably harms our society — first, because although motive is an element of the crime, it cannot be a crime itself in a free society; but far, far more importantly, because murder must remain our absolute evil.
If we label Robida's act a "hate crime," we ascribe reason to it. We assign cause. And we demote three men from "innocent victims" by labeling them "homosexuals." To pretend Robida's act was worse than a husband killing his pregnant wife is harmful because it necessarily elevates the latter crime — but more crucially, because it distracts from the awful fact than an 18-year-old criminal attacked three innocent men with a pistol and an axe.