Is it more heinous to kill someone for their ethnicity than for their money? Is it worse to beat someone up because of their sexual orientation than because you “just” hate them personally? Yes and yes according to multiple US laws. For example, according to Wikipedia, “The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 28 U.S.C. § 994 note Sec. 280003, requires the United States Sentencing Commission to increase the penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person. In 1995, the Sentencing Commission implemented these guidelines, which only apply to federal crimes.” There are numerous other state and federal laws which make the same distinction.
Without making the slightest excuse for crimes motivated by hatred, I think this is absurd. “No, your honor, I didn’t kill him because of his religion; I killed him because he didn’t open the cash register fast enough when I was robbing his store. I should get a lesser sentence.”
Motive is often important in the detective work that leads to an arrest. After arrest and conviction, the punishment should depend on the crime that was committed, not what led the person to commit the crime. A murder should be punished for murder, not for what he said while committing the act.
Over-emphasis on motivation rather than action is not confined to criminal prosecution.
According to NPR, The Hawaii court which issued an injunction against Trump’s second immigration order "…concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that 'a reasonable, objective observer ... would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]' " Does that mean that the same executive order would pass legal muster if it were issued by someone else? The order is either constitutional or not; the Supreme Court will decide. It’s either good policy or not; you can decide that on your own and probably have. But whether the court can overturn a law or an order should depend on the language of the law or order, not on the intent of the person who promulgated it. Should we undo the First Amendment if we find out that James Madison was trying to protect himself from a libel suit?
Intelligent friends and relatives have told me that they think our missile attack on the Syrian nerve gas base was a good thing to do and in the interest of both humanity and the United States. “But,” some of them have said, “I don’t trust his motives.” How will we ever know his motives? He probably was aware that sticking a thumb in Putin’s eye would help dispel the allegation that he is Moscow’s man in DC. He probably knew that this action would get the bipartisan support he has not gotten for anything else in his presidency. And no reason to think he wasn’t horrified by the gassing. You can have more than one motive at a time. But none of that matters. What matters is whether the use of force was right or wrong.
Obama’s extreme detractors say he didn’t act when Assad crossed the chemical red line because he (Obama) wanted to weaken the United States. This is the motive argument backward. If you do something I don’t agree with, you must have a bad motive. In my opinion Obama made a very serious mistake, probably did it with the best of intentions. Doesn’t matter. Actions matter; motives are for mysteries.