Political Prisoners

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During his disastrous term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

during the late 1970s, Andrew Young told an interviewer that prisons

in this country held perhaps “thousands of political prisoners.”

Congress and the media followed with a predictable outpouring of

anger, which helped lead to Young’s resignation the next year.

Young’s point, of course, was that because large numbers of black

Americans populated prisons — and America was a racist country — they had to be there for political reasons. The insinuation was

clear: people who commit crimes ostensibly for political reasons

(or at least be a member of a politically-favored group) should

not be held to the same standards as common criminals. Their actions

should be judged upon the political status of the perpetrators,

not the actions themselves.

Such arguments were predicated upon the belief that political beliefs

and ideologies are superior to other sets of beliefs, be they religious

or otherwise. Thus, when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped

Patrician Hearst in 1974, many people opined that since the SLA

members were supporting a worthy cause (“helping the poor”),

they should not have been held accountable to their crimes of murder,

bank robbery, and kidnapping. At worst, many argued, the punishment

handed out to those in the SLA and like organizations should have

been less severe than retribution given to common criminals who

commit their transgressions out of simple greed or anger.

Indeed, the recent arrest of Kathleen Soliah, an SLA member who

had escaped justice for 25 years, has triggered a new wave of protest,

as her supporters hold that she has a “passion for justice”

(read that, a left-wing view of the world) and is above prosecution.

And since many of the baby boomers who glorified the politics of

destruction during the 1960s and 1970s are now firmly entrenched

in the modern political class, Soliah may very well get away with

her crimes.

How strange it seems, then, that those who have glorified political

causes for so long have now created a new class of political transgressions:

the hate crime. The continuing politicization of modern life has

come full circle, as one’s political biases legally can now be a

factor in the meting out of punishment for what was once simply

a crime against a person or property. And instead of pointing out

the real evils and injustices which result from politicizing crime,

many people belonging to groups which bear the brunt of hate crime

accusation are now demanding hate crime protection themselves.

Before going farther, we must define the hate crime. It is an attack

(either bodily or verbal) against the person and/or property of

someone in a politically protected social group by someone who was

motivated to do the assault because he does not like the general

characteristics of the protected group.

For example, if I (a white male) rob a black or Jewish person not

because I want their possessions but because I dislike blacks and

Jews, I can be charged with a hate crime, for which conviction brings

more severe penalties than conviction for a simple crime. However,

if I rob or shoot a black or Jewish person simply because I want

their money, then I may be charged with a crime, but have not crossed

the line into politically incorrect behavior.

The reasoning behind hate crime laws is that it is more odious to

have a certain political frame of mind while committing a crime

than simple greed or anger. Furthermore, such a law makes certain

political assumptions about the person who commits the act, that

somehow his or her status is in itself proof of political oppression.

Take the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a federal law which allows

women to sue men who rape them, the idea being that rape is violence

against a political class of people by a more powerful political

class. (Some in Congress had unsuccessfully sought to enshrine the

act into criminal law before compromising by placing it in the category

of civil law.)

In other words, according to the backers of this law (which is currently

under review by the U.S. Supreme Court), the horror of rape is not

due to the fact that a man has sexually violated an individual woman

against her will but rather because as a member of a political class

of males he has oppressed a weaker political class of females. Thus,

the awful crime of rape is reduced to the crime of improper political

thinking, making a rapist a political prisoner.

In the last year, two murders and a shooting have galvanized the

hate crime industry. Three white hoodlums brutally murdered James

Byrd, Jr., a black resident of Jasper, Texas, by dragging him behind

a pickup truck. Another group of hoodlums in Laramie, Wyoming, pistol

whipped a homosexual male student at the University of Wyoming,

while in Los Angeles, a deranged gunman who was connected with alleged

white supremacist groups opened fire on a group of children at a

day care located in a Jewish community center.

These three incidents have increased calls not only for more states

to pass hate crime laws, but also for a nationwide law which would

force people who commit such crimes to be tried in federal court.

Implications for such laws are obvious.

In the first place, the swiftness of justice in the Texas and Wyoming

cases demonstrate that local law enforcement officials are not interested

in sweeping such things aside. Juries in Texas have already condemned

two of Byrd’s murderers to death and the third suspect awaits trial.

The perpetrators in Wyoming quickly pleaded guilty in order to avoid

the death penalty. Neither state has a hate crime statute, yet justice

was quick and severe.

Those who believe that a hate crime law would have resulted in an

even greater degree of justice in Texas should remember that if

those convicted under such a law were to be sentenced to death,

then they would be executed not for their deed, but for their political

biases. As odious as some of those beliefs would be to most people,

it would represent the ultimate triumph for the modern political

class: a death sentence for politically incorrect attitudes.

One group which has been constantly blamed for inciting hate crimes

has been conservative evangelical Christians. The rhetoric which

flowed from many political commentators and editorialists after

the Wyoming murder and the Los Angeles shooting clearly blamed Christians

who believe homosexuality is sinful and that Christianity exclusively

provides the true path to God. The proliferation of hate crime law

endangers Christians who will become targets of political opportunists

who, like Nero after the fire in Rome, seek to blame a minority

in order to increase their own power and influence.

Yet, after a gunman shouting anti-Christian slogans recently murdered

seven people in a Fort Worth, Texas, Baptist Church before killing

himself, Gary Bauer and other conservative Christian political figures

demanded that the incident be investigated as a hate crime. This

is me-tooism at its worst. Christians, along with other religious

minorities, have nothing to gain from hate crime laws, since they

will ultimately find themselves the targets of political demagogues,

but the lure of political opportunism was simply too great for Bauer

and his followers to ignore.

Hate crime legislation not only is unnecessary, it is harmful to

the pursuit of universal justice. Like so many laws and regulations

before them, hate crime laws are tools wielded by the political

classes to create and then destroy their enemies. By interpreting

what really are crimes against individuals to attacks upon politically-favored

groups, hate crime legislation strips justice of what should be

the characteristic of equality under law. Such laws do not protect

us from tyranny. They are tyranny.


2, 1999

Professor Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College

in South Carolina.

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