Wednesday, February 08, 2006

From rhetoric to action

Regular readers know that the main reason I keep harping on the rise of right-wing eliminationist rhetoric is that history tells us that this rhetoric always precedes action.

Last weekend, Jacob Robida acted out this dynamic in real life: He walked into a tavern in New Bedford, Mass., and, after inquiring whether it was a gay bar -- and being informed that it was -- began a murderous rampage with a hatchet and a handgun, leaving three bar patrons injured, one of them in critical condition. When pulled over in Arkansas for a traffic violation, he shot and killed a Gassville police officer, launching a 20-mile pursuit that culminated when his car was disabled in nearby Norfolk. He then killed his female passenger, 33-year-old Jennifer Rena Bailey, and then was shot himself when he pointed his weapon at police.

Like all such rampages, this one did not occur in a vacuum. Robida had a Web site on which he posted a number of entries regarding his fascination with all things Nazi and murdering people in general. A search of his room turned up Nazi regalia and literature. David Ehrenstein has a pretty complete rundown of the details.

It is a dynamic -- almost a kabuki dance of death, really -- we have seen played out many times among the inhabitants of the fringes of the far right. From Benajmin Smith to Buford Furrow to David Lewis Rice, America over the last couple of decades has seen a regular parade of "lone wolf" killers, often mentally unstable or even mentally ill, who spin off into violence after being inspired by the hateful rhetoric of the extremist right.

Of course, as I've explored before, these cases are always more complicated when mental illness is involved:
Regardless of the outcome in terms what kind of justice the perpetrator will face, this story drives home one of the real truths about hatred -- not just racial hatred, but all kinds of hatred of The Other: It is a festering toxin that infects all our lives and brings ruin to our homes.

Nonetheless, it is not hard to see the wellsprings of their actions -- who are often impotent old men babbling out endless conspiracy theories and vile bigotry neatly packaged together. It is easy to respond with contempt to such men; it is not so easy to do anything about them.

As Radical Russ at Pam's House Blend points out, we can't directly attach the anti-gay hatred people like Fred Phelps foment to people like Jacob Robida. At the same time, the bloodstains are not so easily washed off their hands.

Moreover, as Steven D at Booman Tribune points out, acts like Robida's are a natural product of the kind of hateful eliminationist rhetoric that is common throughout so much of right-wing discourse anyway: "joking" about doing away with liberals, demanding that we round up and deport all illegal aliens -- and most of all, complaining that hate-crimes protections for gays and lesbians represents an "infringement" on the rights of conservative Christians.

The natural implication of this argument -- which has been proffered by a range of fundamentalist organizations from Traditional Values Coalition to the Family Research Council -- is that beating the crap out of gays, even to the point of death, is a God-given right for Christians. Combined with a mood in which "getting rid of them" is a favorite option among the trend-setting pundits, it's not hard to see where people like Jacob Robida get their ideas.

But as I explained in Death on the Fourth of July [p. 140]:
The First Amendment protects speech, not conduct—thoughts, not crimes. One cannot commit a crime and simply claim it as an act of free speech. An assassin cannot kill the president and pretend he is protected by First Amendment rights to political speech.

Indeed, underlying many of the arguments offered by opponents of hate-crime laws (reflected, for instance, in the Traditional Values Coalition's charge that they are "anti-Christian") is the notion that criminal behavior (such as assaulting or threatening a gay person) somehow deserves First Amendment protections. But crimes are not a form of free speech. Gay-bashing is no more a right than is lynching or even, say, assassinating the president. Political thought may motivate all of them, but that doesn't mean the Constitution protects any of them.

The problem is that, logic notwithstanding, the fundamentalists' argument has held sway for the past decade or more when it comes to a federal hate-crimes statute. It was, after all, at the behest of the religious right that the Republican leadership killed -- for the third consecutive time -- legislation that would have enacted the first true federal hate-crimes law in October of 2004. Since then, there have been only empty gestures and no action to finally pass the bill.

If there is anything good to be obtained from tragedies like Robida's rampage, it is that finally, perhaps, the rhetoric on our side can also turn to action. As Pam Spaulding at Pandagon notes, a number of politicians -- including Ted Kennedy, who has been chief sponsor of the LLEEA all along -- have taken the rampage as a call to action and are moving ahead to once again pass the bill.

Perhaps this time, both fence-sitting liberals and freedom-loving conservatives can see the bigger picture when it comes to these laws:
[H]ate-crimes laws are not about taking away anyone's freedoms -- rather, they are about ensuring freedoms for millions of Americans.

As I point out in the book, hate crimes have the fully intended effect of driving away and deterring the presence of any kind of hated minority -- racial, religious, or sexual. They are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people, and they are message crimes: "Keep out."

Rural dwellers' dread of the dark colors of the inner city is something of a cliche, one based nonetheless on reality. What is less observed, however, is the common dread held by many minorities for America's more rural spaces. Black people fear stepping foot in Idaho because of the presence of the Aryan Nations in the state's Panhandle. Gays and lesbians view driving through places like Wyoming and Montana with a palpable anxiety.

If you get out a map of the country and put yourself in the shoes of a person of color or another sexual persuasion, and start looking at the places you would feel safe visiting, you'll suddenly realize that this can be a very small country indeed for people who are not white heterosexuals. This is what Yale hate-crimes expert Donald Green means when he says that hate crimes annually create a "massive dead-weight loss of freedom" for Americans.

Jacob Robida's rampage was all about reminding gay Americans that they are unsafe in our society -- that their lives are forfeit because haters like Robida say so. People like this get their fuel from demagogues who claim that inflicting this kind of violence on such outcasts is their right. Not only is it their right, but it is the right thing to do.

Now, is there any chance a hate-crimes law would have stopped Jacob Robida? No, of course not. But having a hate-crimes law on the books is an essential first step in changing the environment in which all the little Jacob Robidas out there become possible.

Haters like these always believe that they are acting out the real wishes of the majority community. And so it is essential -- always -- that they be repudiated. Publicly and with great fanfare.

Passing, after all these years, a true federal hate-crimes statute would be a good place to start.

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