Richard Cohen's Oct. 19 op-ed piece on hate-crime laws missed a fundamental distinction between the consequences of bigotry-driven murder and "ordinary" murder (e.g., driven by greed).

Large-scale bigotry-driven murder has been considered acceptable, even desirable, by human societies throughout much of history. If mankind is serious about turning over a new leaf in this regard, it has no choice but to distinguish this form of murder, identify it the best way it can and visit stern and specific punishment on its perpetrators. It is unfortunate that Mr. Cohen, instead of acknowledging this need, chose to argue that the victims of bigotry would be just as dead as the victims of greed, so why bother with the difference?

K. V. BAPA RAO

Los Angeles

Richard Cohen betrays a profound misunderstanding of hate-crimes statutes. "By punishing a criminal not just for what he did but for the reason he did it, we are, in effect, validating his thinking," he wrote. Hogwash.

Many crimes punish criminals for their motivation. Take terrorism laws: The FBI defines terrorism as the "unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." In other words, punishment is added to acts that are already criminal for the motive behind them -- just as with hate-crimes laws.

A conservative Supreme Court, ruling unanimously in 1993 in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, declared that these laws do not constitute "thought crimes," because they punish acts that are not free speech. I guess William Rehnquist, the author of that ruling, must be one of those liberals who are "just plain out of their minds," according to Mr. Cohen.

DAVID NEIWERT

Seattle

Richard Cohen says no proof exists that hate-crime laws serve as a deterrent. Yet FBI statistics released recently show that in 1997-1998 hate crimes sharply decreased for all categories covered by federal hate-crime laws, while they increased a whopping 14.3 percent for gay and lesbian Americans, who are not covered.

Mr. Cohen wrote that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act would increase penalties for perpetrators. This is false. This act would help law enforcement by allowing federal assistance, when necessary, in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The act's ability to assist law enforcement is why 22 state attorneys general, the Police Foundation and the National Sheriffs' Association support it.

Mr. Cohen also is wrong in asserting that hate-crime legislation treats some victims unequally: All people are covered under this legislation.

Finally, Mr. Cohen perpetuates the misconception that hate-crime laws punish thought. Yet he presented no evidence that thought or speech has been limited in the 22 states that have such laws that include sexual orientation.

ELIZABETH BIRCH

Executive Director

Human Rights Campaign

Washington