Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thought Criminalization

I learned to expect this kind of thing from some of my more extreme classmates at college, but even though I am not a fan of the current Congress, I never imagined that this could become federal law. The House has actually passed, and the Senate is close to passing, hate-crime legislation, thereby making certain opinions grounds for punishment. Let me repeat that: Certain opinions will be grounds for punishment.

If this legislation passes, then when a person finds himself declared guilty of a crime in a court of law, the very fact that he has certain opinions will mandate increased sentencing. This is not about using certain biases that he has in order to establish a motive. It is about taking whatever sentence he gets for committing the act of a crime, and then increasing that sentence for the sole reason that he had held certain opinions while committing that crime.

The New York Sun recently published an op-ed by Kenneth Blackwell opposing this bill. It is worth the read, although, while I agree with him, I would have chosen a different angle. Anyhow, today the Sun published a letter to the editor by Joel Levy of the Anti-Defamation League defending the bill.

Levy's letter is key because it illustrates how flimsy the arguments in favor of the bill really are. For example, he argues, "Hate crime laws... do not punish thought. They punish actions..." If that's true, then why do we need the law? We already have a plethora of laws on the books that allow for punishment of the "actions" that Levy has in mind, including all sorts of assault, battery, and so on. Isn't the whole point of hate crime legislation to require the justice system to be harsher on people who have hateful thoughts when they committ actions that would otherwise get them a somewhat lesser punishment (but still a punishment)? Levy himself betrays this point in the rest of the second sentence quoted above: "...and are triggered only when an individual commits a hate crime that is motivated by bias or prejudice."

Let's step back for a moment. "[M]otivated by bias or prejudice"? Presumably, Levy means bias or prejudice against race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, and probably even age, disability, and so on. To be sure, it is wrong to attack someone because of his race, religion, or whatever. Nobody is arguing against that point. But who picks what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike? What if someone gets beaten up for wearing a shirt of a certain color? Surely that is "prejudice," and one could even argue that it is "bias." There is no question that it is discrimination - in fact, it is as arbitrary and stupid a discrimination as racial or sexual discrimination. Why shouldn't the law punish that sort of opinion? Here, I am going to hear that it is because people don't choose their race or sex, but they choose what shirt to wear. That is terrible reasoning for two reasons: 1) A person chooses his shirt based upon his own personal preferences, which he does not consciously acquire, and 2) It doesn't matter, because a person is as entitled to wear a black shirt as he is to have black skin. But I'm getting off topic: The point is that the bill begs the question of who will pick what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike (which, ironically, will entail a great deal of "bias" and "prejudice"). How on Earth do they plan on answering that question fairly?

People get attacked for a variety of reasons. Most of them involve "hate" of some sort or another. Racial hate is not any more special than any other sort of hate, and should not be treated as such. In any case, the hate is not the problem any more than some other motive is the problem. The problem is the action, and the action is what should be punished. This is true even on a basic legal level: It is considered a basic right that when a defendant is brought into court, he is being tried only for specific charges that have been brought against him. If he is seen attacking someone, and is charged with assault and battery, prosecution cannot throw in a robbery charge in the middle of the trial because someone comes forth claiming that the defendant held up a convenience store the year before. That is a separate charge, and if the DA thinks that there is a case, then the defendant will be tried separately for it. Similarly, if someone is convicted of assault and battery, an addition to his sentence because of his beliefs amounts to throwing on another charge of illegal opinions (on top of the assault and battery) for which he should receive further punishment. In other words, one's opinions have become something with which the authorities can charge that person. In other words, there will be such a thing as "illegal opinions." How disgraceful is that?

Levy ends his letter to the Sun with the following simple-minded paragraph: "Hate violence deserves priority attention. When enacted into law, this legislation will improve the criminal justice system's ability to respond to these devastating crimes." He misses the point by a mile. The criminal justice system already "respond[s] to these devasting crimes," as witnessed by every example of people getting locked up for assault, battery, rape, murder, etc. The legislation would just require it to "respond" to the criminal's personal beliefs as well.

In "responding" to the criminal's personal beliefs, the bill would validate the criminalization of certain thoughts. I think that I've explained that enough. But there is another consequence: With thought crimes there necessarily come thought police. Along these lines, Blackwell asks an important question in his op-ed: "As a country, do we want to be in the business of 'proving' what someone thinks?" Indeed, are we comfortable with people's beliefs and opinions being tried in a courtroom, with people testifying against their fellow citizens' thoughts, with defendants brought to tears as they plead for people to believe that they don't actually hate minorities, with a policeman patiently explaining to a jury the mechanics of how the latest law-enforcement technology can be used to show that the defendant does, indeed, have a politically incorrect opinion about some hot-button issue? By G-d, I hope not.

If we as a nation have become so pathetic as to not get frightened at and react swiftly against the prospect of routine thought policing, then we should be more ashamed than any people on Earth have ever been, because it would mean that after achieving unprecedented liberty, we have become too lazy and disinterested to even think about defending it, making us unworthy of our freedoms and of the countless lives that have been lost protecting them. I, for one, cannot abide such a disgrace, and I dare not presume that many of my countrymen can either.

So, why was this bill ever put forth? Do the Democrats, who spearheaded the bill, like the idea of thought policing? Probably not. Personally, I give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they never even thought of it that way. The Democrats just think that they are helping minorities and other people who might plausibly be considered disadvantaged based upon how they can be categorized. (Remember exactly which views will be prohibited.) But lurking in the shadows of the naive idiots who pushed this bill in Congress are the people who came up with the idea in the first place. These are the dangerous people whose hierarchy of values puts their agenda above freedom. They are the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, who benefit every time a member of some superficially constructed minority is given an opportunity to blame others for his outrage.

In a commentary for The Primary Source, I once mentioned that my fellow Tufts students "should ask themselves whether they care about the bias itself, or whether they have really just been working to encourage the sensitivities of certain groups whose identity politics they support." I think that we need to apply that same question to this context, and wonder how we could ever live with ourselves if we sacrifice our children's freedom to have any beliefs, opinions, and preferences that they please just to avoid bothering to oppose a dangerous, moronic bill that won't accomplish anything anyway.

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