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'We should work together to end hate crimes in our country'

September 20, 2012 11:56 IST

At a news conference that followed a United States Senate hearing on 'Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism,' representatives of several civil rights and interfaith organisations pledged to stand together to fight the unprecedented level of racial profiling, discrimination and hate violence against South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims living in America ever since 9/11.

The Senate hearing was held in the wake of the shooting incident in a gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, in which five worshippers were killed.
 
Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, who presided over the briefing, said, "As history has proven, the highest levels of government can be very effective in setting a framework to prevent hate crimes and the threats posed by violent extremists."
 
"The leadership of our government was crucial to counter the crisis that emerged during the attacks on African American churches in the 1990s," she noted, and added, " We are at a similar moment in history now and we, as a society, need the government to assist us in moving forward towards a safer America."
 
Iyer said, "Our message today is that we stand strong and united against hate, and that we are ready to work together with government, with policymakers, in order to find and craft sensible solutions that will end hate crimes in our country."
 
She said that the hearings convened by Illinois Democrat Senator Richard Durbin was a historic first step, but it was imperative to keep up the momentum to make sure that hate crime laws are enforced and the scourge of racial, ethnic and religious bias in America that had reached epidemic proportions is eradicated.
 
Durbin, who also participated in the briefing, pointed out that "The turnout at this hearing today, where hundreds of people came, is an indication of the level of interest in this important topic -- first over the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where this gurdwara was attacked by a man who killed innocent people."
 
The lawmaker, who was visibly moved by the testimony of Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother Paramjit Kaur Saini was among the six Sikhs slain by white supremacist and neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page, said the testimony was "something I will never forget."
 
Durbin said, "His message was not just one of sorrow in the loss of his mother, but his message was for all of us, because it basically reminded us that we need to stand up against all forms of discrimination -- discrimination against all religious groups, all ethnic groups, all races."

"America is a diverse nation and America has prospered and is strong because of its diversity. The immigrants who come to this country make it stronger. I am the son of an immigrant, proud to be a United States Senator," he said.
 
Durbin said, "I am happy to see those who have come here love this country as we do and want to be part of it."
 
"But the second message today was equally important," he noted, and argued that "we cannot overlook the growth of these hate crime groups. In fact, that many of them are extraordinarily well-armed. They have arsenals of weapons, which would absolutely amaze and stun many Americans."
 
Durbin said, "We need to have our Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, following (these groups) closely. When they cross the line beyond speech into conduct, which is threatening to the American population, we need to move, and move quickly."
 
"When we know there are targeted groups and religions, we need to warn them and work with them, to keep them safe," he said.

Durbin said that he disagreed strongly "with one witness" at the hearing, and asserted that he believed "the Hate Crimes legislation, the Hate Crimes law, is critically important in this country."
 
The witness the lawmaker was referring to was James B Jacobs, professor of Law at New York University, who argued that "there is no problem for which hate crime laws are the solution."
 
"I do not think it is justifiable, desirable or useful to create a hierarchy of crimes and victims based on the racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation identity of the perpetrator and/or victim," he said.
 
Jacobs said that "the labeling of offenses as hate crimes or bias crimes is subjective and generates unnecessary and divisive controversy."
 
To reinforce his argument, Jacobs said, "One need only recall the controversy over whether Dharun Ravi's effort to photograph his roommate, Tyler Clementi's homosexual encounter ought to be charged as a bias crime."
 
"While all Americans could agree that invading a roommate's privacy is wrong, there was great division over whether the punishment should be doubled if the roommate is gay. The whole fight was so unnecessary since simple invasion of privacy was punishable in New Jersey by a five year maximum sentence," he said.
 
Thus, Jacobs reiterated that "the politics of hate crime laws divide rather than unite us."
 
But Durbin said, "I was proud that President Obama signed it into law and made it clear that there are certain crimes which go beyond ordinary physical violence into a level of hatred that needs to be officially discouraged in America, branding it a specific crime."
 
"So, I believe that the administration of the law when it comes to hate crimes, the investigations are good things for us to do as a nation so that we can stand together and defend any group that is the subject of this kind of hateful discrimination and violence."
 
Durbin said, "The people who have gathered today represent many different ethnic groups, different religions, different backgrounds. But we all come together with this common theme -- first sorrow, for what has happened to the Sikh American community, and second, a resolution by all of us to really work together to end this kind of discrimination, this violence against any group in America."
 
"We will stand together," he declared.

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC