Jewish World Review
May 8, 2009
/ 14 Iyar 5769
Here we go again: Annals of thoughtcrime
It's back: the criminalization of thought.
This time the same old bad idea has been all decked out in the latest newspeak. It's now the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, aka HR 1913.
Hmmm. Sounds impressive. Who, after all, is for hate? Or crime? Surely both need opposing. This bill sounds like a two-fer. How can it miss?
But under the bill's title, like a snake under a rock, is the dubious concept that George Orwell named concisely enough in "1984": thoughtcrime.
HR 1913 has already been approved by the that citadel of Deep Thought, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 249 to 175. It establishes severe penalties for those thinking wrong thoughts during the commission of a serious crime from 10 years to life, depending on the crime involved.
And what would those wrong thoughts be? The additional penalties would be assessed if the crime were committed "because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin" of the victim.
Another section of the bill applies to crimes committed "because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person." There must be a reason for differentiating between gender and gender identity in the law, but I'd rather not guess. Space is limited in newspapers, especially in these times, and you already get the point, which is:
It's not just the crime that is to be judged anymore, but the politics of it. The accused doesn't become eligible for additional punishment unless he's motivated by one of the designated politically incorrect hates named in the bill. All others are, in effect, discounted.
That is, there's no extra penalty if you're infuriated by, say, the victim's class. Or his income. Or his taste in neckties. Or his musical preferences, sports team (Damn Yankees!), regionalism (danged hillbillies!) or the general cut of his jib. For none of those prejudices are included in the bill's designated hates.
It's an approach to crime and punishment premised on the (unspoken) theory that it's not as bad to hate some folks as to hate others, or to commit the same crime but for reasons other than the politically incorrect ones specified in the bill. Like greed, revenge, envy or just general cussedness.
Think about it, Gentle Reader, if this subject still permits thought rather than blind emotion: When we punish only some motivations for a crime, we necessarily privilege as the academics say other kinds. And we wind up with a dual standard of justice: political and nonpolitical, "bias crimes" and the dull old conventional ones, "social justice" and just plain justice,
HR 1913 is the political equivalent of a bad course in Ethnic Studies or Advanced Feminism at one of our more prestigious universities. Robert Anton Wilson, who was a combination of pop philosopher and libertarian agitator, said it:
"Academia cannot argue the rational principle that hatred of any group doesn't make sense; they dumped that when they dumped logic (as a 'male' perversion). The argument between left and right now consists only of debating which are the correct groups to hate."
The line between "1984" and 2009, sci-fi and serious political discourse, ideology and law, grows ever thinner with the introduction of measures like the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
Defenders of HR 1913 will explain how eminently fair and equal HR 1913 is, for it doesn't discriminate. It protects all equally. How's that again? Well, don't we all have an actual or perceived race, color, religion (or irreligion), national origin, gender and sexual orientation? And, Lord knows, plenty of us have disabilities. Ergo, this bill protects us all! What could be fairer?
Back in the real world, it's clear enough, despite the superficially neutral language of the bill, that this law would afford special protections only to special kinds of Americans. Others need not apply. Despite its supporters' talk about equal justice. Which has a familiar ring in these Southern latitudes, where "separate but equal" actually meant that some folks were more equal than others. And others less so.
There's a reason Justice is depicted as wearing a blindfold. Why rip it off? Why not have the punishment fit the crime instead of the prejudices behind it? Why not just leave the degree of punishment for vicious crimes where it belongs with judges and juries instead of making the law a respecter of persons? Or rather a respecter of their race, color, sexual identity or disability.
By the logic of HR 1913, all hatreds are not equal. Special hates merit special punishment for example, those based on race, creed, color or sexual orientation. But none of the suspicious characters mentioned in the all-points memo just sent out by our new secretary of homeland security military veterans, advocates of gun rights, opponents of unrestricted abortion or immigration are eligible for special protection in this bill. Certain kinds of prejudices draw no objections from this administration.
Thoughtcrime can be an arbitrary thing; it seems to cover hating only certain groups. If you're just an ordinary Joe without any distinguishing marks, you rate only the ordinary protection of the law. You're not part of what the lawyers call a "protected" class. There's one law for them, another for the rest of us.
How would this Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act play out in reality? My best guess: If you were lucky enough to assault somebody 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 the specific ways designated by HR 1913, and, boy, you could be in a heap o' trouble.
The big problem with the concept of thoughtcrime isn't that it's arbitrary; it's that it doesn't seem to involve much thought.
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