Hate crime law a step forward

August 12, 2009

ALEXANDER COCKBURN recently wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled "The Hate Crimes Bill: How Not to Remember Matthew Shepard," which is plain wrong on a number of points. It should be noted at the outset that this is a departure from Cockburn's usually decent political commentaries.

Cockburn opposes the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill (recently passed in the House and currently before the Senate) because, among other things, he fears it will chill speech. However, as pointed out by the ACLU in its letter supporting the bill, the bill does not target speech but instead targets wrongful conduct. The bill indeed contains a specific evidentiary clause protecting speech. The bill provides that "in a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense."

Cockburn goes on to give an example of two men who beat up a bar patron, who only later turns out to be gay, and thus face prosecution under this bill. Cockburn ignores here a little thing called evidence –in other words, under the Matthew Shepard bill, there must be evidence that the conduct was motivated by the particular mindset the perpetrator had.

And while Cockburn fears this will criminalize "thoughts," as pointed out by the Human Rights Campaign:

[N]othing in this act would prohibit the lawful expression of one's deeply held religious beliefs. People will always be free to say things like: "Homosexuality is sinful"; "Homosexuality is an abomination"; or "Homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of heaven." The Act would only cover violent actions committed because of a person's sexual orientation that result in death or bodily injury.

Cockburn doesn't stop there, however. He goes on to chastise the bill because it appears the result of the oh-so-powerful "gay lobby." Gay lobby, Mr. Cockburn? Really? If the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement had a lobby powerful enough in itself to sway legislators as you imply, why do we still have "don't ask, don't tell?" Why do we still have the Defense of Marriage Act? This bill was first introduced in 2007. Why did this seemingly powerful "gay lobby" stop at hate crimes?

Cockburn then states that providing greater penalties for "some types of victims" will "spur resentment." Nice. Logically, Cockburn's argument could apply to any anti-discrimination statute, affirmative action or, indeed, any civil rights law. Way to fall into the far right's lap!

As the Human Rights Campaign rightfully puts it:

Perpetrators of violent crime who intentionally select victims because of who they are, single out and separate some Americans from others. They are terrorists who single out victims and commit violent acts as a means of sending a message to society and to others who belong to the same category. The federal government--through decades of civil rights and criminal law--has a history of addressing crime that singles out individuals for violence in this way. [The Matthew Shepard bill merely] adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to existing federal law regarding the authority of the federal government to investigate and prosecute crimes.

Finally, Cockburn concludes by stating that we don't need laws like this because already existing state laws are sufficient. No, they aren't, which is exactly the reason this bill was introduced. This law would expand federal power to prosecute crimes against LGBT people, which is currently lacking. Moreover, it would empower the federal government to prosecute when the state is unable or unwilling.

In sum, with growing confidence and action by the left, we are also seeing increasing incidents of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, LGBT persons and other oppressed groups. Cockburn's arguments thus appear the epitome of mixed consciousness--at the same time ultra-left (fearing an expansion of governmental power) and ultra-right (shunning any "special treatment" of the oppressed). Now is the time for the left to call for greater protections for our side, not less.
David Bliven, Briarwood, N.Y.

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