Saturday, April 28, 2007

Who would Jesus bash?

-- by Dave

Melissa at Shakesville brings a horrific case in Indiana to our attention:
Court documents show the suspects severely beat 35-year-old Aaron Hall, then dumped his body in a ditch. The victim's family now calls the murder a hate crime.

When Thomas Hall read court documents describing his brother's death, he was stunned. "It was a brutal crime against my brother and I feel this is a hate crime," said Thomas Hall. Police found Aaron Hall's badly beaten body hidden inside a garage on Sunday. Charged in connection with the murder were 19-year-old Garrett Gray, 18-year-old Coleman King and 21-year-old Robert Hendricks. Police made the arrests after receiving a tip from Garrett Gray's friend.

The tipster got a multi-media text message on his cell phone from the suspects. In the photo, Aaron Hall appeared with the suspects' arms around him. Hall had a swollen lip, a black eye, and appeared badly beaten.

Police say on April 12th, Hall and the three suspects were drinking at Gray's house. The suspects told police Hall grabbed Coleman King and questioned his sexuality. That set off the deadly beating.

"And they're saying what's why they killed him. Because he was gay. And he wasn't gay," said Thomas Hall. "I don't know any crime on the planet that deserves that type of punishment." Court papers show Gray and King brutally attacked, then photographed Hall. King hit him with his boots at least 75 times. The suspects told police they dragged Hall down the steps, loaded him into Robert Hendricks' truck, and dumped his body in a ditch. They say they went back two days later, and found Hall in a nearby field. That's when they tell police they wrapped the body in a tarp and hid it in Gray's garage.

As Melissa emphasizes:
This shit doesn't happen in a void.

Indeed it doesn't. It's happening in a context in which the leading figures of the religious right, empowered and seconded by movement conservatives, are constantly proclaiming that laws against hate crimes are a form of discrimination against their religious beliefs.

If you roll this argument around long enough, its underlying message comes down to this: Jesus wants you to bash fags. It becomes a form of permission -- permission transmitted to the people most likely to act on the suggestion.

Hate-crime laws are never about hate speech per se. They are only about acts that are already crimes. Now, certain acts of speech -- particularly threats and intimidation -- are the subject of criminal sanction already in the law, so if these crimes are committed with a racial, religious, or gay-bashing motive, then it is possible for some speech to be considered a hate crime.

But the core principle is this: The First Amendment has never covered criminal acts, because crimes are never a form of free speech. You can't kill someone and claim it was an act of political protest, at least not under Western law as we know it.

When fundamentalist fronts like the Traditional Values Coalition sends out fliers like the one above, and advances a similarly distorted and false line of propaganda against hate-crime laws, as Pam Spaulding just observed (crossposted at Pandagon), they're simultaneously sending a signal that bashing gays and lesbians is something that ought to be permissible under the law.

Certainly every aspect of the campaign is a gross distortion. Jesus never referenced homosexuality in his teachings, pro or con. Most importantly, no aspect of any hate-crime law, current or proposed, would prohibit people speaking out against homosexuality, particularly not in the context of religious belief. It may be actual hate speech, but hate speech is also protected speech under most circumstances.

Christian Americans talk a lot about preserving their freedoms. Now, over the centuries in America, more than a few of them have declared that the mere existence of other beliefs infringes on their freedom -- that is, their freedom to inflict violence and terror on the "unbelievers." Somewhat sensibly, however, the law has generally recognized that our freedoms do not include the right to take away others' freedoms at will.

And that is what hate crimes, in the end, are all about: Taking away the rights and freedom of our fellow citizens, denying them the right to participate in the community where they reside and forcing them to live as shadow citizens. People opposed to hate-crimes laws are, at rock bottom, profoundly anti-freedom.

Besides, I'm not all that certain Jesus would be opposed to hate-crimes laws. What was that he said about "the mote in your own eye" and "cast the first stone"?


Note: I've noticed the debate at the above-linked sites regarding hate crimes has invariably wandered into the standard disinformation being peddled. As something of an antidote, I'd like to offer these links for deeper background on hate crimes, the laws against them, and the rationale for those laws.

Letter to the L.A. Times

When hate hits home

Bigotry and freedom

Hate crimes: The big picture

Failing in the present

Should we repeal hate-crimes laws?

The GOP, gays, and hate crimes

Hate crimes, democracy, and freedom

Hate crimes: A response

Who needs hate-crime laws?

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