February 23, 2019 12:00 pm

COMMENTARY: Hate crimes hoaxes are not victimless crimes

Jussie Smollett turns himself in to Chicago police as he is charged with a felony count of filing a false police report. During a press conference, Chicago PD allege the actor staged not only the hate crime on himself, but has also sent threatening letters to himself in the past in order to gain a higher salary for his work on “Empire”.


For the vast majority of us who do not commit crimes, it can be difficult to understand why some people choose to do so.

In the grand scheme of things, a charge of felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report is no more mysterious or upsetting than any other comparable charge. However, the idea of concocting a hoax hate crime in order to advance one’s career prospects seems not only unfathomable but incredibly reckless.

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If police in Chicago are correct, that’s exactly what actor Jussie Smollett did. The investigation into what was originally alleged to have been a disturbing hate-motivated attack on the actor has turned into an investigation that has resulted in Smollett himself being arrested and charged.

As Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson put it during his press conference Thursday, “I’m left hanging my head and asking why — why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make a false accusation?”

READ MORE: 6 steps Canadians can take when they spot hate speech online

It was originally alleged by Smollett that in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, he was attacked by two masked men who then poured some kind of chemical on him and placed a noose around his neck — all while shouting racist and homophobic slurs, even stating at one point that “this is MAGA country.”

As dreadful as that all sounded, it was a little over the top. The idea of violent and racist Trump acolytes roaming around the streets of Chicago at 2 a.m. in the midst of a polar vortex seemed to stretch credulity.

As it turns out, police say, this was all orchestrated by Smollett himself. It’s alleged that Smollett paid two brothers $3,500 — paid by cheque, strangely enough — to stage the attack and that Smollett’s wounds were self-inflicted scratches. They even say he sent himself fake hate mail prior to the fake attack.

All of this was done to try to advance his career, police say. As it stands now, it’s hard to see how his career can recover.

Not only did this exploit a lot of goodwill from people who heard the story and were genuinely concerned for his well-being, but this exploited and stoked a lot of political divisions and tension in America. It’s bad enough to make up a lie for selfish reasons, but it’s so much worse when that lie has broader consequences for society (to say nothing of wasted police resources in a troubled city that can ill afford such a thing).

READ MORE: In Canada, Jews face more hate crimes, while Muslims face more violent ones: StatCan

A plausible case can be mounted that President Donald Trump himself is the source of a lot of division in the United States. However, this attack created a false narrative that many were too quick to believe: that not only had a hate crime taken place but that the perpetrators were aligned in some way with Trump.

Granted, a hoax is designed to fool people and so it would be unfair to blame everyone who was taken in by it. At the same time, though, we all need to be aware of our own confirmation bias. When we want something to be true in order to confirm our pre-existing beliefs, we lose the patience to wait for the evidence to come in and the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate it when it does.

So while the pendulum may now swing toward more skepticism, there’s a real danger that it will swing too far. A hoax like this only makes it more likely that victims of actual hate crimes will not be believed and thus may not even come forward in the first place.

WATCH: Global News coverage of Jussie Smollett case

Such hoaxes are relatively rare, but having one with a high profile such as this one is bound to give people a warped perspective of the matter.

For his part, Smollett denies all of this and continues to maintain his innocence. And it’s true, these allegations have not been proven in court. If and when they are, it will be a further indictment of Smollett that he refused to own up to his actions and refused to acknowledge the harm that his actions caused.

All of which speaks to the need for a stiff penalty if indeed he is found guilty of this. It’s not just about his own alleged misdeeds, but about also making sure actual victims are protected.

Some crimes call out for a strong deterrent and a loud societal condemnation. Hate crime hoaxes stand as an obvious example of that.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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