Derail the 'Hate Crimes' Bandwagon!

By Alexander Cockburn

May 28, 2009 7 min read

We'll get to hate momentarily, but first a word about its consort — marriage. I'm glad to see that California's Supreme Court is not above a bit of economic pump-priming to help bail out the Golden State in its hour of bankruptcy. The court's decision on May 26 to uphold the voters' ban last year on same-sex marriage will ensure that a torrent of money pours into California as the nonprofits and political action committees on both sides prime their bank balances for the next state initiative. Long term, it's a shot in the arm for the tourist industry, too. Half a century down the road, long lines will be forming in the Castro for visitors to gawk through the window of some antique store at the wizened last same-sex couple legally married before the ban kicked in.

Of course, it also means month after unendurable month of gays whining on TV about the horrors of not being able to "marry." Ban all marriage, I say! If it's a property issue, then write out a contract. There are plenty of simple legal instruments available.

The victims' lobby rules. Assuming child abusers manage to avoid "civil commitment" (continued incarceration past the stipulated prison sentence), Megan's Law ensures that they will go on paying for their crimes till the day they die. If Megan's Law, why not "Madoff's Law"? Put every person convicted of financial fraud on a computerized list, available for public inspection. Saddle them with endless prohibitions, like no living within 30 miles of a bank or an ATM.

We've got the Matthew Shepard Act before Congress and far advanced on its journey into the statute book. This isn't about equality. It's a ham-handed attempt to right injustice by establishing different legal treatment for some classes of crime victims. America is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women. "Hate speech," far short of any direct incitement to violence, is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment gone the way of the dodo.

At the end of April, the House of Representatives approved and sent on to the Senate a bill formally known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, backed by Obama's White House. It classifies "hate crimes" as attacks based on a victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Now, there already is a 1960s federal statute on the books proscribing hate crimes based on race, color, religion or ethnic origin, but prosecutors could invoke this law only if the victim was engaged in a "federally protected activity" like going to school or praying in church. No more, if the Senate agrees with the House.

Suppose two fellows in a bar see a man come in and, later in the evening, beat him up. He turns out to be gay. Armed with the hate crimes bill, if it becomes law, local prosecutors will have an incentive to pile hate crime charges on top of simple assault, and thereby garner federal funding that will be available under the Shepard Act. The suspects then face an "enhancement" — several more years behind bars — for committing a hate crime. Or they are acquitted, and the federal prosecutor promptly moves in. Double jeopardy will metastasize from its already swollen presence in the justice system.

The gay lobby has gone into overdrive for just such a hate crime law since Matthew Shepard got beaten to death in 1998 by two roofers on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. It's somewhat unclear whether the roofers, one of whom was high on meth at the time, murdered Shepard because they specifically hated gays. Anyway, the murder has put them behind bars for the rest of their lives using tough existing laws. But, starting with Shepard's mother, Judy — the $100,000-plus head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation — gay and "human rights" groups have been fundraising on Shepard's "gay martyrdom" ever since. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a big hate-crime-law proponent, with the American Friends Service Committee as the only group in it to have turned against such laws.

The problem with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is that it creates a thought crime and also categories of crime victims for disparate treatment. Goodbye to equality under the law. How will a prosecutor prove that a lesbian was murdered because of her sexual orientation rather than because she refused to give the mugger her purse? Given the way case law evolves and the manner in which prosecutors advance their political careers, crimes against some types of victims will incur greater penalties, with this injustice spurring resentment.

Advocates for the hate crimes bill insist that it deals only with crimes of violence and has nothing to do with limiting free speech or thought. But as Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant treasury secretary who wrote a fine book on civil liberties, "The Tyranny of Good Intentions," wrote recently on the CounterPunch website, which I edit with Jeffrey St. Clair, "All laws are expansively interpreted. For example: The Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) [passed in 1970] was directed at drug lords. Nothing in the law says anything about divorce; yet it soon was applied in divorce cases."

Federal and state hate crime laws are unnecessary and dangerous. As always, the challenge is to apply existing laws in a manner that constitutes justice, no matter who the victim may be.

I'm glad to say the gay National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs "opposes legislation that calls for enhanced sentencing penalties for those convicted of hate crimes." Five gay groups have publicly criticized a bill currently before the New York State Legislature — the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act — that provides sentencing enhancements for hate crimes. Let others join them. It's disgusting to see liberals rushing into the sentence-toughening business.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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