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Jewish World Review Aug. 19, 1999 /7 Elul, 5759

Don Feder

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Hate-crime laws incompatible with a free society -- LET'S GET ONE THING STRAIGHT -- because I refuse to get caught up in the hate-crimes hysteria does not mean I'm blase about anti-Semitic incidents.

My children attended a Jewish day school for six years. Under other circumstances, they could have been the victims, rather than the kids at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. Any moron who attributes my opposition to the extension of hate-crime laws to indifference better have major medical.

But appalled as I am by the Los Angeles shooting spree, I'm not about to join this assault on the First Amendment.

Buford O. Furrow Jr.'s rampage does not signal the return of the Cossacks or Black Hundred. Furrow is a deeply disturbed individual with a history of violence. His obsession happens to be Jews. It could as easily have been Mormons, Masons or Amway salesmen.

Despite the vociferousness of groups like Aryan Nations (where Buford did his goose-stepping), anti-Semitism is probably less of a force in America today than at any point in our national existence. An attack by a weirdo who once tried to have himself committed does not a pogrom make.

Still, the presidential thinker is stabbing at the panic button. Bill Clinton called the community-center shootings and the murder of Joseph Santos Ileto "another compelling argument for the passage of hate-crimes legislation." Only if the objective is thought control.

An amendment adding gender, disability and sexual orientation to the federal hate-crimes law passed the Senate on July 22nd and is pending in the House. The measure is dangerously misguided, but then so is the underlying premise.

Furrow committed serious crimes, including murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Would Ileto (a Filipino-American who was mistaken for a Hispanic) be any less dead if his killer wasn't motivated by racial animus?

Would the wounded children be in less pain, would they be less traumatized, if their assailant didn't adhere to a screwball belief in the "Zionist Occupied Government"?

For that matter, if a man rapes a woman because he wants sex and doesn't care how he gets it, is that somehow less horrible than if he commits the crime to hurt and humiliate women?

Anti-bias laws punish ideas.

Any attack on a person or his property is a crime and punishable as such. Hate-crime laws add an extra penalty because the offense was spurred by malice toward a protected group. The additional punishment is for holding bad ideas. It's a short step from there to punishing pure advocacy.

But all ideas, including those that are admittedly ugly and evil, are shielded by the Constitution.

It's ironic that some liberals think the First Amendment protects pornography (a notion which would have astounded James Madison) but not hate speech, which clearly falls within the parameters of political expression that the amendment was designed to defend.

Conservatives suffer from a similar illusion. Our version of hate-crime laws is the anti-flag burning amendment.

It's the same principle -- sending someone to jail because you're offended by his beliefs reflected in his actions. Liberals are outraged by racism, as well they should be. Conservatives are affronted by anti-Americanism, as well they should be. But neither has the right to use the law to punish ideas they find repugnant.

Hate-crime laws deny another basic concept of democracy (equality before the law) by creating different classes of victims.

If someone beats you because he doesn't like your looks, your assailant gets one penalty. If he's animated by bias toward your religion, race, etc., the punishment for the same offense is more severe. Where's the justice here?

The attempt to expand federal law to cover sexual orientation is particularly pernicious. Homosexual activists stridently insist that what they call anti-gay speech (including opposition to gay marriage and refusal to embrace the myth that homosexuality is genetically determined) spurs violence against gays and is itself a hate crime.

Canada has a law banning "public incitement of hatred and promoting hatred" that's been used to censor speech critical of the gay lifestyle. If hate-crime laws are expanded, such Orwellian nightmares might be just around the corner.

Sensible people know where real danger lies. Which is more of a threat to a free society -- a lone nut with a gun or efforts to penalize ideas and throttle speech in the name of tolerance?

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate