Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Not Punish Thoughts?

As hate crimes legislation is being debated anew on Capitol Hill, now is a good time to revisit why conservatives and Republicans have opposed punishing thoughts in our nation's laws.

What is a hate crime? It is a crime that is motivated by bias against a victim who is a representative member of a disfavored or minority group. Should we punish hate crimes? Of course we should, and we do under existing laws. Should we punish certain criminals more harshly because of the identity of their victims? That's where the debate is happening in D.C. this week.

The first reason why we should refuse to punish thoughts is First Amendment principles. Although the freedom of speech and thought has been under siege in recent years and it seems that the real estate where true freedom can be found shrinks more each day, we have consistently stayed out of the brains of Americans and allowed them to think what they like. Even if the thoughts a person has are despicable, distasteful, and unfit for any decent human being, the answer is not to legislate those thoughts away. Hate must be defeated by love, not by law.

If we were to punish criminals for their thoughts, how would we ascertain what they were thinking as they committed a crime? If a person is beat up and robbed and that person is gay or black or a Muslim, how can we know if the true motivation was financial gain or hate-based? Don't all crimes involve hate? Hate for society, hate for our laws, hate for fellow human beings. Can we really expect judges and juries to make appropriate decisions on what was going through a criminal's mind as the offender committed a crime? We cannot punish what we cannot know beyond a reasonable doubt.

Is the suffering any less real no matter if the victim is black or white? Does the family mourn the loss of life any differently regardless of the sexual orientation of the victim? Is the act committed any less of an evil and injustice regardless of what religion the victim practices? Why then should we punish the actions differently depending on who was victimized?

Under current law, if a criminal picks out their victim based on their identification as belonging to a certain group, the criminal targets this person and commits a premeditated offense against the victim then the criminal is punished to the harshest degree under the law. Under current law, the motivation behind the crime is not the determining factor as to what the punishment will be. Financial gain or hate-based bias, criminals are punished regardless of who they choose as a victim.

When a criminal is treated differently based on who they choose as a victim, we call it injustice. We don't make it law.