Why assaulting soldiers shouldn’t be a hate crime
Last month, an army cadet in Manchester was attacked with a makeshift blowtorch while selling poppies for Remembrance Sunday. An unidentified man approached him in the street and, without saying a word, blasted him in the face with the lit fumes of an aerosol can. Although the police have stressed that they are ‘keeping an open mind as to what motivated the offender to commit such an act’, it has been widely presumed that the cadet’s uniform was the key factor.
Whether this speculation proves accurate or not, it has provided timely grist to the mill of the Labour Party’s strangely under-discussed proposal to add members of the armed forces to the list of legally ‘protected classes’. This would include criminalising verbal abuse of members of the armed forces. The idiocy of this is impossible to deal with in an article of this size, so let’s focus on the aspect of physical assault. As Labour MP Thomas Docherty explained in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, the bill would make attacking a member of the armed forces a ‘specific aggravated offence’, if, that is, the officer is in uniform at the time of the attack or is targeted because of their job.
This proposal follows a succession of hate-crime legislation that has been introduced in the UK over recent decades. And it brings the problems of such legislation into sharp relief. The motive for an attack is, in a sense, the part of the act that should be none of the state’s business. In hate-crime cases, the violent act – the part that actually affects someone else – ceases to be the sole focus of the prosecution. Instead, the prosecution also focuses on what a person was thinking, as if that somehow makes the attack worse. The term ‘thought crime’ may elicit eye-rolls nowadays, but that is precisely what is being proposed here.
It is repugnant because it takes us another step away from equality before the law, and another step towards gradations of citizenship. If some psychopath kicks a homeless man to death – who, for the sake of argument, had no particular societal ‘credits’ to his name – has less of a crime been committed than if a uniformed soldier had been killed instead? The notion is abhorrent.
Some would argue that we should deter people from attacking those who have risked their lives to protect us. Leaving aside the issue of whether that’s really what British soldiers are doing now, this position is a bit repellent. Our legal system punishes, say, murder more severely than theft because it deems murder the more serious crime. But if you attach additional penalties to attacks on a particular sort of person, you are elevating the value of that person’s life above those of others. This is profoundly wrong, and leads us in the deeply suspect direction of lionising the armed wing of the state.
Questioned about the proposals on the BBC’s Daily Politics, shadow defence minister Gemma Doyle stumbled through some pretty unconvincing ‘our boys’ rhetoric, explaining that ‘we think it’s important because our armed forces do a really important job’ and so ‘nobody should be targeted because they’re a member of the armed forces’. How about just losing the last bit? ‘Nobody should be targeted’ would suffice.
Alasdair Riggs is a writer based in London.