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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Annals of 'thoughtcrime'

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE DEBATE over a proposed hate-crimes law here in Arkansas is growing as confused and surreal as the concept of hate crime itself.

The state's attorney general, Mark Pryor, explains that the law would punish only conduct -- not thought.

Can he have read the law he's proposing? It specifically increases the penalties (by exactly 20 percent) for crimes motivated by prejudice. What is prejudice but a state of mind -- of thought? What we have here is a concept that George Orwell named in 1984: "thoughtcrime.''

Not all prejudices would be equal under this law. The bill singles out nine specific, politically incorrect prejudices that would be punished:

"A person shall be subject to enhanced criminal penalties if the person purposely selected the victim of a criminal offense because of the victim's actual or perceived: (1) Race; (2) Color; (3) Religion; (4) Ethnicity; (5) Ancestry; (6) National origin; (7) Sexual orientation; (8) Gender; or (9) Disability.''

Why not a victim's class, income, dress, political affiliation, musical taste, sports team (Damn Yankees!), regionalism (Danged hillbillies!) or eye color? Nope, none of those prejudices are punishable under this bill. It would still be legal in Arkansas to hate Republicans.

This law is premised on the assumption that it's not as bad -- it's 20 percent better, actually -- to commit crimes against folks for reasons other than those specified in the bill. Like greed, revenge, envy or just general cussedness.

When we punish only some motivations for a crime, we necessarily privilege other kinds. And we wind up with a dual standard of justice: political and nonpolitical, "bias crimes'' and just plain, good old-fashioned, red, white and blue, guaranteed 20-percent-off, wholesome American ones.

Absurdities soon surface. Like this one: This bill makes it clear that the 20-percent extra for crimes committed because of a prejudice against the disabled will not apply if the disability we hate is (a) compulsive gambling, (b) kleptomania, (c) pyromania, (d) alcoholism, or (e) illegal drug use or disorders resulting therefrom.

Why the discount for those hatreds? One hesitates to guess. This discussion is already sufficiently absurd. Which is the risk one runs when one discusses an absurd law.

Back in the real world, it's clear enough, despite the neutral language of the bill, that this law is intended to afford special protection only to special kinds of Americans -- mainly ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, plus the majority sex, formerly the fair sex.

The bill is only ostensibly neutral. Its word games should have a familiar ring in these latitudes. After all, the ostensibly neutral language of states' rights (''separate but equal'') was once used to discriminate against certain Americans. We were all separate but equal back then, but some were definitely more equal than others.

The language of this law may be new -- it's even popular and politically sophisticated -- but the intent is old: To punish the same crimes more harshly when they're committed against the wrong people. Just as black-on-white crime used to be punished more harshly than black-on-black crime. Now we've reversed that standard. But reverse discrimination is still discrimination.

Why not just leave the degree of punishment for vicious crimes where it belongs -- with judges and juries -- instead of delegating that decision to pressure groups that would make the law a respecter of persons? Or rather a respecter of their race, color, sex or disability.

Here is another entry in the absurdity department: The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union here in Arkansas, Rita Sklar, doesn't object to this bill because it codifies the concept of thoughtcrime. That would make too much sense.

No, she wants to change the bill to make certain that any thoughtcrime is proven by due process. She would insist that, before these additional penalties were handed down by a judge, the evidence would have to show a direct link between the prejudicial thought and the violent deed.

This is what American civil liberties have come to in the hands of our professional civil libertarians: We're going to punish people for bad thoughts but, by golly, we'll do it with every regard for legal procedure. We'll require evidence!

What kind of evidence do you think that would be -- entries in a diary, chance remarks in conversation, dirty looks given people of another race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability? And what counterevidence could be introduced? (''Why, your honor, some of my best friends are . . .'') Is this a serious debate or a scene from the cult movie Brazil?

One state senator spoke of amending the bill to make it clear that rape would not be considered a hate crime. What is it then, a love tap? A hateless crime? A 20-percent-off special? The absurdities multiply.

Maybe what we have here is a variant of the old Soviet system of political versus merely personal crimes. (''Don't shoot me -- I'm a crook, not a capitalist!'') In this case, the defense would be: ``I'm only a rapist, not a hater!''

George Orwell was way ahead of us. His hero in 1984, poor Winston Smith, would understand this kind of ``law'' perfectly. He was guilty of a hate crime: He didn't love Big Brother. What's more, he knew he would be caught and punished as soon as he started expressing subversive thoughts in his diary. It was only a matter of time before thoughtcrime would lead to hate crime.

How would this Grand Arkansas Hate Crime Statute and Election Ploy work? Well, if you're lucky enough to assault a guy of the same race, religion or ancestry, or even with the same disability, you might not be assessed an additional penalty. But mess with somebody different from you in these nine enumerated, politically relevant ways, and, boy, you in a heap o'trouble.

It all sounds eerily familiar for those of us who grew up in the Furious Fifties. It's like looking at a photograph with the colors reversed. No cambia nada, as the Italians say. Or to put it in plain Suthuhn, nothin' changes but the date on the calendar. And the complexion of the voters.

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