Or, in this case, a crime against thought.
A couple of readers alerted me to a rambling, incoherent and profoundly inaccurate “op ed”opposing hate crimes legislation that was sent to a number of smaller Indiana newspapers by four members of the Indiana House of Representatives: Bruce Borders, Matt Hostettler, Christopher Judy and Curt Nisly. I don’t know any of them, but I do know that if students of mine displayed so profound a disconnect from reality, they’d get failing grades.
The letter began by asserting that the proposed hate crimes bill is “an attack on Western Civilization,” and they ramp up the hysteria from there.
They do make one valid point: in our legal system, we punish behavior, not ideas. If the legislation proposed to sanction hate speech, they’d be correct to oppose it. But that isn’t what a hate crimes bill does–and contrary to their assertion that passage would usher in an Orwellian world of thought control (and no, I am not making that up, that’s part of their screed), that thought control has yet to emerge in the 45 states that have had similar laws on their books for a number of years.
Indiana’s version has yet to be finalized, but here’s the general way these measures operate: let’s say person X beats up person Y. Let’s further assume that the crime of battery carries a statutory sentence of 2-4 years. The judge must decide what portion of that time X will serve, and will make that determination after weighing what lawyers call mitigating and aggravating circumstances.
Let’s say X had previously been law-abiding, had too much to drink, and Y insulted his wife. Those are mitigating circumstances, and the Judge is likely to give him the minimum sentence called for by the statute.
But what if X had previous arrests or convictions, showed no remorse, and attacked Y out of the blue? The judge would consider those facts to be “aggravating,” and would undoubtedly hand down a sentence at the high end of the statutory range.
The judicial system recognizes a number of specific elements that are considered mitigating or aggravating, and that Judges should take into account in determining the punishment for a criminal act. Currently, in Indiana, motivation due to bigotry is not one of those standard elements. A hate crimes bill will add it.
Battery is a crime, a criminal act. In my hypothetical, it carries a sentence of 2 to 4 years. (I have no idea what the statutory range really is, this is for illustration.) If Indiana passes a hate crimes act, and X beats the you-know-what out of Y while shouting racist or anti-semitic or homophobic epithets, the Judge will be required to take that evidence into account when determining the length of X’s sentence.
In all probability, some judges would consider the hateful motivation even in the absence of a law, but there is no requirement that they do so. Having such a law on the books is recognition that criminal acts prompted by bigotry are not only unAmerican, but cause fear and anxiety in members of the victim’s targeted group.
Please note, we are talking about criminal acts. If Representatives Borders, Hostettler, Judy and Nisly want to tell the world they hate gay people or Jewish people or black people, they remain free to do so. If they want to “hold beliefs contrary to governing authorities,” this measure will not unleash the “Thought Police,” despite their hysterical assertions to the contrary.
They just can’t communicate those thoughts through anti-semitic graffiti on a synagogue wall–because that would be an act— the crime of vandalism.
I don’t know whether the letter is evidence of a lack of candor or a lack of basic understanding of the legal system, but if its authors are representative of our representatives, it explains a lot about the Indiana General Assembly.