In late January last year, Marq Vincent Perez set fire to the only mosque in the South Texas town of Victoria and, according to testimony heard at his trial, jumped up and down “like a little kid” as it burned. A jury of his peers convicted him on a federal hate-crime charge that alone could put him in prison for up to 20 years after he is sentenced later this year. The other charges, including using fire as a weapon, could add to the term.
The grim tally of potential time behind bars ought to make Texans proud. Why? Because, for starters, the U.S. Department of Justice did the right thing by adding the hate-crime charge to the initial arson-related charges. Prosecutors told jurors that Perez had planned to create a “rogue unit” to confront members of the mosque, according to the Associated Press.
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department’s commitment to civil rights and protection of minorities has been questioned. The decision to bring hate-crime charges in this case proves that those complaints do not paint a full portrait.
Texans can be proud, too, of the verdict out of Victoria County. While those bent on violence can draw headlines, the truth is that there is a bedrock decency that might often fly under the radar but that is held by the vast majority of Texans. Burning a house of worship isn’t tolerated. Nor is there much tolerance of the kind of crime that aims to make others — in this case, about 40 Muslim families who attended the mosque — feel unwelcome in our society.
That kind of crime is contrary to Texas’ best traditions, where we seek to judge people by their character, not by where they are from or to whom they pray.
These are important reminders because hate crimes in America have been on the rise. Reports of crimes targeting individuals because of their race, religion or sexuality have risen in American cities for the past four years.
A criminal conviction is always about more than punishing the defendant or deterring others. It’s also a message about what kinds of behavior society will find acceptable. As a nation, we decided long ago to make hate crimes a federal offense — and to make them carry their own, sometimes lengthy, sentences. We’re glad the jury in Victoria helped make the corollary case that in Texas, burning down a mosque — whether anyone was hurt or not — is a federal case worth pursuing.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS