Jewish World Review April 12, 1999 /26 Nissan 5759
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Clinton wants to expand the federal "hate crimes" statute, which automatically heightens the punishment of thugs who select victims partly on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin. The president wants to expand the roster of presumptive victims to include the handicapped and non-heterosexuals.
The theory is that government has a duty to look out for the least among us and that the people singled out have drawn short straws in life's lottery.
Presumably out of solicitude for these wretches, the president has decided to interpret the Sermon on the Mount as a mandate for vengeance. He wants the law to decree that it is worse to beat a gay man than to beat a straight one.
This crusade obliterates the ideal of equal justice under the law. It is motivated primarily by ideology, not criminology, and it reflects the aesthetic prejudices of our ruling classes.
Team Clinton thus has proposed a law that combines punishment and proselytism. The suggested legislation orders colleges and universities to begin collecting data on hate crimes. In addition, Clinton has persuaded some businesses and interest groups to craft middle-school curricula to combat "intolerance."
(The partners include AT&T, Court TV, Cable in the Classroom, the National Middle Schools Association, the Anti-Defamation League and the departments of Justice and Education.)
This is worrisome because the president has an unsettling habit of defining "intolerance" in such a way as to legitimize violence against his political enemies.
Friends of Bill are fond of describing presidential critics as "haters."
Does this mean that speaking ill of Bill might in time become a federal crime? That may not be as far-fetched as it seems. After all, several people have been dragged before the magistrates during this presidency merely for shouting bad names at the commander in chief. And a Baptist church was dragged into court by the IRS and stripped of its tax exemption because it took out a newspaper ad describing the chief executive as an enthusiastic sinner.
(The IRS didn't take similar action against churches that pleaded Clinton's cause or derided Republicans as racists.)
The problem with targeting something as gauzy as "intolerance" is that it lets prosecutors decide what prejudices we should and should not accept -- and it gives a president the latitude to hand down edicts and "guidelines" without congressional review or approval. In subtle ways, it criminalizes certain types of thought -- directly assailing the First Amendment.
Ultimately, it even could permit political figures to pass judgment on religion itself.
Consider: Many Christian denominations consider homosexuality an abomination. Suppose a member of such a church were to beat up a gay man with malice aforethought. Could the Justice Department haul in the felon's pastor or priest as an accessory to the assault?
And what about arbitrary prosecution by race? The Justice Department has used the law to prosecute white-on-black crime, but what about black-on-white violent crime, which is more than 10 times as frequent (but still constitutes a relatively small fraction of all violent crime)?
The fact is, hate-crime laws are pernicious in several respects. They are unnecessary. The cases of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. demonstrate the public's profound sensitivity to such crimes and juries' compassion toward victims. As a people, we always have despised the tyranny of the strong over the weak. When creeps single out gays or minorities, they usually get huge sentences -- not jury nullification.
Furthermore, the law's predicate -- that we're in the midst of a bigotry epidemic -- is just flat wrong. Look at the crime statistics and you'll find impressive declines in the rates of violent assaults. In the definitive book on the topic, "Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics," New York University scholars James Jacobs and Kimberly Potter note that "hate crimes" constitute about one-thousandth of all violent attacks.
To pretend that such an outbreak of hate exists is to sow seeds of discord and encourage activists to exaggerate perceived ills. If you liked Tawana Brawley, you'll love the kind of grandstanding the hate-crimes law will inspire.
Finally, the legislation is arbitrary. Our system of laws can function only so long as it is consistent, simple and resistant to gratuitous abuse. The moment statutes become vehicles by which ruling elites impose their tastes, we revert to the age of Hammurabi.
The president's proposal is less an attack on intolerance than an expression of lordly arrogance. Let's face it: All assaults are hate crimes.
We don't need "special" punishment for selected acts of brutality. We just
need punishment for all of
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