Hate crimes happen. I don’t much like the term, but let’s accept it as modern shorthand for criminal acts, usually of violence, motivated by some form of prejudice, be it racial, religious, sexual or otherwise. Last Monday evening my friend Maajid Nawaz — founder of the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam and a presenter on LBC radio — was the victim of such a crime. As he stood outside the Soho Theatre in Dean Street, central London, a white man shouted abuse at him and punched him in the face.
In Maajid’s words: “The white male assailant called me a ‘f****** P***’ as he hit me in the face with maybe a signet ring & ran away like a coward. He took nothing. He was just a racist.” The attacker’s ring (or it may have been a key) left an ugly gash in my friend’s forehead. The assault occurred after Maajid challenged the man for mocking an Asian family because “they weren’t English”. There were several witnesses.
I am sure more than one politician must have condemned the attack. However, the only quotation I have found is from the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, who described it as “shocking”.
At the end of last month another hate crime was reported. The victim was the gay African-American actor Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who claimed that he had been attacked in Chicago’s Streeterville area by two white men in balaclavas, who told him, “This is Maga [Make America great again] country.” They poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. The actor told police that he had fought them off.
This being America, rather more politicians were ready to express their outrage over this abhorrent hate crime. The Democratic senators and would-be presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris denounced it as an “attempted modern-day lynching”. Harris tweeted that Smollett was “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery . . . No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or the colour of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
Even Donald Trump felt obliged to condemn the attack. “I can tell you that it’s horrible,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t get worse.”
The only hitch is that this particular hate crime appears to have been staged by Smollett with the help of two brothers of Nigerian descent, one of whom appeared as an extra in Empire, the television series in which Smollett appears. Last week Chicago police sources said they had evidence that Smollett had paid the brothers $3,500 (£2,700) to stage the attack and that they had bought the rope found around Smollett’s neck at a hardware shop the weekend before the “attack”. On Wednesday Smollett was charged with filing a false police report.
It is certainly tempting to ridicule Jussie Smollett and the politicians and media folk who too readily swallowed his story. The best line came from Titania McGrath, a spoof social justice warrior whose Twitter account mercilessly mocks “woke” culture: “It is absolutely *essential* that we believe Jussie Smollett,” she tweeted. “If we don’t, other people who haven’t been attacked might not have the courage to come forward.”
Yet there is something more serious going on here. Smollett’s fraud on the public might have gone undetected had it not been for the tireless work of the Portland-based journalist Andy Ngo, who smelt a rat from the outset. In a mindblowing Twitter thread, Ngo has listed more than 30 fake hate crimes from the past two years.
For example, at about the time of the 2016 election, a Muslim student at Louisiana University claimed that two white Trump supporters, one wearing a Trump hat, had assaulted her, ripped off her hijab and robbed her. It was later revealed that she had made the episode up.
A month later a Muslim student at Baruch College alleged that she had been attacked by three white Trump supporters on the New York subway. According to her testimony they had called her a terrorist and, when she tried to move to the other end of the train carriage, had followed and tried to pull off her headscarf. She was subsequently charged with filing a false report and obstructing governmental administration.
What motivates someone to bear false witness in this way? As I said, there is no lack of real hate crime. According to the FBI more than 7,000 hate crime incidents were reported in the United States in 2017. In England and Wales, you may be surprised to learn, 94,000 offences were identified as hate crimes in the year starting April 2017. That doesn’t mean there is 13 times more violent bigotry in the UK than in America, any more than the lower figures for 2016 mean that there has been a “surge” in hate crime. The statistics reflect the reclassification of perennial acts of violence or vandalism as hate crimes — and the ways the public and police are encouraged to report them as such.
The problem is that there is not enough of the right kind of hate crime to validate the narrative, so cherished by the left, that Trump’s election unleashed a wave of white supremacist violence. Only half the known offenders in US hate crimes in 2017 were in fact white. Anti-semitic acts often turn out to be by non-white perpetrators, though you would need to read between the lines of The New York Times to work that out.
Under these awkward circumstances there is clearly an immense demand for tales of murderous Maga-hat-wearing rednecks roaming the streets of, er, Chicago and New York, conurbations not exactly famed for their large populations of such people. On Thursday Harris said she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the news of Smollett’s arrest. “Disappointed” says it all.
This is the same senator who refused even to address a question to my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when she testified about Islamic extremism before the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs in June 2017. Why? Because Islamic extremism is the wrong sort of extremism.
Democrats such as Harris want to talk only about white extremism — rather in the way that the phoney civil rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre used to publish a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” but never a list of Muslim extremists. Ironically, Nawaz and my wife both appeared on that list — until he sued them.
Like the case of the Covington Catholic schoolboys — who were falsely accused of having insulted a Native American activist during a visit to Washington — the case of Jussie Smollett serves only to validate Trump’s insistence that it is liberals who propagate fake news. This is going to matter in 2020.
But the more profound effect of fake hate crimes is to impede us from facing the complex realities of hatred itself.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is published in paperback by Penguin