Bias crimes will no longer be tolerated in New York City, say the proponents of the city’s new “bias crimes” statute. Its sponsors call it one of the toughest such laws in the nation, and it will for the first time allow judges to award unlimited punitive damages to victims of bias attacks, as well as increase substantially the fines that the Human Rights Commission is permitted to assess.

The new law, to be sure, is largely symbolic, but a vote of 44-1 in the city council shows how difficult it is for elected officials to resist scoring political points of the motherhood-and-apple-pie variety. Under this statute, the list of protected categories includes the standard groupings of race, color, and creed, but also problematical ones like age, citizenship status, gender, disability, and marital status. Regarding the last, one is unsure whether it is the married, single, divorced, or widowed who are being preyed upon by criminals. The list of protected groups seems so comprehensive, in fact, that even some heterosexual white males will be covered, however inadvertently.

The whole notion of bias crime is spurious. It has never been explained why it is worse to attack a man because he is homosexual than to attack a man because he is wealthy or to attack a woman because she is beautiful. Why should the motivation of the act add to its heinousness?

Though the proponents of these laws gloss over the problem, the task of determining a criminal’s motivation is fraught with uncertainty. Even if an attacker makes ethnic slurs during the criminal act, it does not follow that bigotry was his motive for committing the crime. And what about the ambiguous case in which a homosexual is victimized, not because he is gay per se, but because he appears weak, and thus an easy mark?

When crimes involving name-calling are punished more severely than ordinary crimes, victims will be tempted to fabricate charges of bias. We can expect the civil court system in New York City to become flooded with frivolous suits. We can also probably expect more cases like last year’s infamous “sneaker polish” incident. In this 1992 version of the Tawana Brawley hoax, two black children in the Bronx claimed they were spray-painted white by a gang of Caucasian youths. In more innocent times, such an incident would have been considered a prank and been promptly forgotten. Mayor Dinkins, however, saw fit to hold a press conference for the purpose of denouncing it, and the story dominated the local headlines for that week. The police were unable to find any evidence of the alleged attack and finally decided that it had never happened.

A crime was recently committed in New York that illustrates the slippery slope we are on when we concern ourselves with the murky subject of a criminal’s state of mind. A rabbi dressed in Orthodox garb was stabbed and seriously wounded by a Hispanic man. Though the assailant uttered no anti-Semitic slurs, the attack was nevertheless labeled a bias crime. The answer to the puzzle? The attacker made no attempt to take anything from his victim, apparently causing police to conclude that nothing except bias could have been the motive. According to the Orwellian logic of bias crimes, if the victim, in addition to being stabbed, had also been robbed, that would have made it a less serious, not a more serious, offense.

Considering the extent to which minorities now benefit from preferential treatment, there is also the likelihood that bias crime charges will be selectively brought by prosecutors. The Larry Brown case in San Jose, California, should surprise no one. Brown was a Caucasian youth who was attacked by a group of Vietnamese immigrants, one of whom shouted “white devil” before fatally shooting him. The case passed with barely a ripple in the mass media, and the local district attorney declined to press hate crime charges.

We are certain to be hearing much more in the future about bias crimes. After ruling last year in R.A.V. v. St. Paul that “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, the Supreme Court in June upheld the constitutionality of a Wisconsin sentence-enhancement law, the principal kind of criminal statute for dealing with crimes involving bias. These laws typically allow judges or juries to mete out a harsher penalty to a person convicted of an offense deemed motivated by prejudice. Twenty-six states now have sentence-enhancement laws on the books.

Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in the Wisconsin case seemed to gloss over the difficulty of ascertaining a defendant’s state of mind, noting that judges have traditionally taken motive into account when deciding on a sentence. Though the High Court’s decision was unanimous, the contentiousness of the issue was reflected in the fact that, while the A.C.L.U. supported the Wisconsin law, that organization’s Ohio affiliate hied a brief on the opposite side. (An appeal by Ohio of a court ruling on its bias crime law is now before the Justices.) The Court’s decision can also be expected to provide a boost to a federal sentence-enhancement law currently pending before Congress.

Given the apparent increase in recent years of crimes involving bias, the rash of new legislation is understandable. But whether they are criminal or civil laws, bias crime statutes are a bad idea. In New York City the liberal-dominated city government has shown little interest in combating garden-variety muggings, rapes, armed robberies, and murders. Legislators would do well to concern themselves with mandating harsher, swifter, and more certain punishment for all types of serious offenses, instead of ith cheap grandstanding on the dubious issue of bias crimes.