Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat, 5761
On Jan. 10, MTV aired Anatomy of a Hate Crime - the first of three scheduled network specials (the others will appear on NBC and HBO) about the brutal death Oct. 6, 1998, of the gay University of Wyoming freshman.
Why should his killing absorb the popular culture so much more than the 30,000 other murder victims we've buried since his death?
Shepard's killing closely resembled the random violence that explodes every day somewhere in this country: He was beaten with a pistol in the course of a robbery, then tied to a fence in freezing temperatures. His murderers also came across as depressingly typical - losers and drug abusers with long criminal records.
Despite the fact that MTV followed its broadcast of the movie about Shepard's death with 17 hours of special programming promoting new hate-crimes legislation, the film itself remained honest enough to leave open the major question about the murder: Why does it deserve the "hate crime" designation in the first place?
Shepard's two killers belonged to no groups dedicated to persecuting homosexuals, nor had they established a pattern of anti-gay violence. On the same night they robbed and beat Matthew, they also brutally attacked two young Mexican-Americans, neither of whom was gay. It's true that after their arrest, the murderers briefly floated the idea of a "gay panic" defense - claiming that Shepard made sexual overtures to them, and they lost control. The MTV movie rightly ignored such accounts, widely rejected by legal authorities and journalists who investigated the case.
PROBING FOR MOTIVATION
The entire debate on why two predators selected Shepard illustrates the stupidity behind current and prospective hate-crime laws. What difference does it make if they killed him because they hated gay people, or rich people, or short people, or all of the above? The unfortunate young man is just as dead, and even without hate-crimes laws in Wyoming, the two killers got double life sentences.
Wyoming's well-deserved tough-on-crime reputation didn't deter the two murderers from their evil deed, so how could a new hate-crimes statute have done so - or added to their ultimate lifelong punishment?
A STARK CONTRAST
Nonetheless, the Byrd killing has hardly inspired three different television movies from the powers that be in Hollywood.
On one level, the emphasis on Shepard may reflect the fact that gay executives wield more power in the entertainment industry than do African-Americans. On the other hand, there's also an uncomfortable political difference: As a victim of hatred based on his race rather than his sexual orientation, Byrd already was covered by federal and Texas hate-crimes statutes - although prosecutors didn't need to use such laws to get the death penalty for two of the three killers.
In other words, the Byrd case could hardly lend itself to arguments for expanded hate-crimes laws because the dead man had already been "protected" by such legislation - altogether ineffectively, it turns out.
Like all crime victims, the kind and gentle Matthew Shepard deserves our
sympathy. But the sad story of his death also deserves better than its
awkward and endless media exploitation to advance a cultural and
JWR contributor, author and film critic
Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three
hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC.
You may contact him by clicking here.
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