Be Careful What You Ask For, Installment MMDCCXIX

The Ottawa Citizen reports that a monument in a cemetery near Toronto has been defaced, and that the local police are investigating it as a hate crime. Not terribly surprising these days, but this case is a little more complicated than most.

The cemetery in question is St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery, and the monument honors members of an overwhelmingly Ukrainian unit that fought in World War II.

For the Nazis.

A cenotaph commemorates the 14th Waffen Grenadier SS Division “Galicia”, which was formed in 1943 and eventually converted into the 1st Division on the Ukrainian National Army, as which it surrendered to the Allies on 10 May 45. The unit was active on the Eastern Front, opposing Soviet units and partisan activities. From the news story:

In May 1944, SS leader Heinrich Himmler addressed the division with a speech that was greeted by cheers.  “Your homeland has become more beautiful since you have lost – on our initiative, I must say – the residents who were so often a dirty blemish on Galicia’s good name – namely the Jews,” Himmler said. “I know that if I ordered you to liquidate the Poles, I would be giving you permission to do what you are eager to do anyway.”

There are allegations members of the 14th SS Division took part in killing hundreds of Polish civilians in 1944 in the village of Huta Pieniacka. Some Ukrainians dispute that the SS division took part in the killings or they argue that only small elements from the unit – and under Nazi command – were involved. Others argue the SS members were heroes who fought against the Russians.

Recently, it was discovered that someone had spray painted “Nazi War Monument” on the cenotaph, which sounds like accuracy in labeling to me. The fact that the local cops are investigating it as a hate crime has led to considerable consternation, but as the police note, they’re following the letter of the law:

In response to questions from this newspaper, Const. Steve Elms, spokesman for Halton-Regional Police, cited a section of the Criminal Code that noted those communicating statements in any public place inciting hatred against any identifiable group could face imprisonment not exceeding two years. “This incident occurred to a monument and the graffiti appeared to target an identifiable group[.]” 

He’s not wrong — and that’s a problem with hate crime laws, I think. If hate crimes can only be committed against certain subsets of the general population who are declared noli me tangere, then the concept of equality before the law goes by the boards. (And although one can argue that the concept has rarely been the reality, we do at least acknowledge it as a desideratum.) And although legislators may pass laws to address specific situations, they’re also always enacting the law of unintended consequences.

And let’s carry this one step farther, shall we? Let us imagine that the police arrive at the scene while the vandal was at work. They order the vandal to stop, to no avail, and so they are compelled to enforce the law. In the course of subduing the vandal, he or she is tased, or tackled and lands badly, or is being restrained…

And dies. For defacing a monument to Nazi troops, or perhaps more precisely, for resisting the police when they try to stop a violation of the law. (Hey, if it can happen for selling loose cigarettes or passing a bad $20 bill…) If every law and regulation is enforced by the power of the State, violence and death are always a possible consequence.

Finally, the article quotes a spokesman from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (which I suppose is analogous to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but I could be wrong): “Yes, it’s destruction of property for sure,” […] “But a hate crime? Far from it.”

No, it isn’t far. It’s simply hate against an acceptable target. There’s a difference sometimes between what what is right and what is legal, what is wrong and what is illegal. And just as we can never build a society so perfect that people don’t have to try to be good, neither should we pass laws and rules in the belief that they’ll never be used against the wrong people.

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Neva, via Twitter.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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