On Feb. 2, Jacob Robida walked into a gay bar in New Bedford, Mass., and did his best to kill the patrons. Wielding a hatchet and handgun, the 18-year-old seriously wounded three men -- and left the nation shocked by his wanton brutality.
Media reports dissected the graphic hate posted on his personal Web page -- his Nazi worship, his death and violence obsession, his "Jake Jekyll" alias. All of these details have served to set Robida apart from normal people. He was extreme; his hate was extraordinary.
But Robida's crime was not so uncommon.
Anti-gay violence monitors record dozens of murders each year. There were 20 in 2004 and 18 in 2003, according to the Anti-Violence Project. The group logged more than 600 assaults in 2004. And these were just the attacks that people were willing to report or that showed up in media. Experts believe many more go unnoticed altogether.
For years, gay civil rights advocates have pushed a congressional bill that would enhance penalties for crimes in which the victim is targeted because of his or her sexual orientation. But as with most criminal justice solutions to intractable social challenges, sentence enhancements cannot be effective responses to hate crime. They don't deal with the actual bigotry.
We may never know what drove Robida's actions, since he died from wounds sustained in a shootout with police. (After leaving the bar, Robida killed two people, including a police officer.)
Nothing on his Web site indicates a specific animosity toward gay people. In fact, a closer look at his site reveals a frustrated young man who, above all else, had defined himself as an outsider -- something most young gay folks can relate to.
On Feb. 2, Robida decided he wanted to die. He reportedly left his mom a note declaring he was going to end his life in "a blaze of glory." He may well have just chosen the most obvious victims as needed bit-players in that tragedy. The gay bar he attacked had been the target of steady, if petty, harassment for years.
Turning Robida into a monster comforts us. It lets us believe that if we just throw the full force of criminal justice at his ilk, all of our disquieting prejudices will go away.
But Robida's actions are better understood as the far end of the same bigotry we all allow to play out everyday. To move past grisly hate crimes like his, we must stop accommodating the bigotry that nurtures them in our own day-to-day lives.
Kai Wright is a freelance writer living in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.