The Hate Crimes Bill: How Not to Remember Matthew Shepard

We’ve got the Hate Crimes Bill, aka the Matthew Shepard Act, aka the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, before Congress and far advanced on its repellent journey towards the statute book. On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill, which passed the House of Representatives by a 249-175 vote in April. If passed, President Obama is expected to sign it.

The Matthew Shepard Act is a ham-handed attempt to right injustice by establishing different legal treatment for some classes of crime victims. The proposed statute classifies as “hate crimes” attacks based on a victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. America is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women. “Hate speech,” far short of any direct incitement to violence, is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment gone the way of the dodo.

Now, there already is a 1960s federal statute on the books proscribing hate crimes based on race, color, religion or ethnic origin, but prosecutors could invoke this law only if the victim was engaged in a “federally protected activity” like going to school or praying in church. No more, if the Senate agrees with the House. Suppose two fellows in a bar see a man come in and, later in the evening, beat him up. He turns out to be gay. Armed with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act if it becomes law, local prosecutors will have an incentive to pile hate crime charges on top of simple assault and thereby garner federal funding that will be available under the statute. The suspects then face an “enhance-ment”—several more years behind bars—for committing a hate crime. Or they are acquitted, and the federal prosecutor promptly moves in. Double jeopardy will metastasize from its already swollen presence in the justice system.

The gay lobby has gone into overdrive for just such a hate crime law ever since Matthew Shepard got beaten to death in 1998 by two roofers on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. It’s actually somewhat unclear whether the roofers, one of whom was high on meth at the time, murdered Shepard because they specifically hated gays. Anyway, the murder has put them behind bars for the rest of their lives using tough existing laws. But, starting with Shepard’s mother, Judy, the $100,000-plus head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, gay and “human rights” groups have been fundraising on Shepard’s “gay martyrdom” ever since. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a big hate-crime-law proponent, with the American Friends Service Committee the only group in it to have turned against such laws.

The problem with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is that it creates a thought crime and also categories of crime victims for disparate treatment. Goodbye to equality under the law. How will a prosecutor prove that a lesbian was murdered because of her sexual orientation rather than because she refused to give the mugger her purse? Given the way case law evolves and the manner in which prosecutors advance their political careers, crimes against some types of victims will incur greater penalties, with this injustice spurring resentment.

Advocates for the hate crimes bill insist that it deals only with crimes of violence and has nothing to do with limiting free speech or thought. But as Paul Craig Roberts, has pointed out on this site. “All laws are expansively interpreted. For example: The Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) [passed in 1970] was directed at drug lords. Nothing in the law says anything about divorce; yet it soon was applied in divorce cases.”

Federal and state hate crime laws are unnecessary and dangerous. As always, the challenge is to apply existing laws in a manner that constitutes justice, no matter who the victim may be.

I’m glad to say the gay National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs “opposes legislation that calls for enhanced sentencing penalties for those convicted of hate crimes.” Five gay groups have publicly criticized a bill currently before the New York State Legislature—the Gender Expression Non–Discrimination Act—that provides sentencing enhancements for hate crimes. Let others join them. It’s disgusting to see liberals rushing into the sentence-toughening business.

The Passion of Mark Sanford

At least Gov. Mark Sanford has raised the aesthetic timbre of adultery as conducted by American politicians of both major parties. Hardened to tacky disclosures about hookers (frequented by Vitter of Louisiana and Spitzer of New York), senate office sex (a staffer exploited by Ensign of Nevada,) cruisers of airport lavatories (Craig of Idaho), Americans have emerged from this darkness into the soaring prose of the Abelard of South Carolina, bathed in the afterglow of an encounter last year with his  Argentinian grande passion:

Tuesday, July 8. 1:42 a.m.

“Got back an hour ago to civilization and am now in Columbia [the state capital of South Carolina ] after what was for me a glorious break from reality down at the farm. I went out and ran the excavator with lights until the sun came up. To me … there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the back ground, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds – and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt.”

Emotion recollected in tranquility, just as Wordsworth recommended as the font of poetry.

July 10. 12:24 a.m

“I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light – but hey, that would be going into sexual details …

“Despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul.”

The emails were forwarded anonymously last December to The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, which sat on them for several months. December, 2008, is about the time Sanford’s wife discovered the affair. It seems fair to speculate that Mrs Sanford just might have been trolling through her husband’s emails and in the fury of irrefutable discovery, went straight to the Forward button. Then,  somewhere along the line in her circle of friends, the package went off to The State.

Maria Belen Chapur, identified  by the Argentinian press as Sanford’s flame, is no piece of trailer trash. She speaks four languages including Chinese.  She works for a large agricultural conglomerate. Fighting for her marriage against this polyglot paramour, Gov. Sanford’s wife Jenny tried to exercise what she has called the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job, seeking strength in the Good Book, but some time in early June she probably came across another sizzling email exchange or simply wearied of talking to a love-smitten zombie because she told Sanford that for the sake of dignity and their four children she wanted a “trial separation” with “the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage”. This is no doubt when Sanford solemnly pledged he would do penance and reform and never email Maria again, then hurried to book his ticket to Buenos Aires. All men are dogs, but you knew that. That’s when he told his staff he was going for a hike on the Appalachian trail, a phrase that has entered the world’s treasury.

Politically Sanford’s a goner. South Carolina is the buckle of the bible belt and in the past he’s been profuse with denunciations of politicians who have strayed, starting with Clinton. He also did some irksome grandstanding earlier this year, rejecting that portion of Obama’s stimulus package allocated his state. Most Americans  think it’s madness to turn down the federal dollar. Now it turns out that Sanford was using state funds not only to allure business to his state but to meet Maria, which is what he’s being whacked with by politicians not eager, for whatever reason, to hang their hats purely on the infidelity issue.

Republicans are reeling, and will continue in this mode until the next Democratic politician steps up to the microphones to concede impropriety. Falls from grace of this nature are tougher for Republicans because of the swerve of the GOP over recent decades into Christian fundamentalism, just as America as a whole has been swerving in the other direction.  Catch a Republican adulterer and  in his collected speeches you’ll find a hundreds paeans to heterosexual Christian marriage and the importance of family, just when the rest of the country has cut back sharply on such antic talk.
Immediately preceding Sanford of South Carolina as betrayer of the sacred bonds was Senator John Ensign of Nevada, member of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, married to Darlene and blessed with three children. Ensign settled for a mere passing grade in adulterous originality, targeting a female staffer in his senate office, wife of another staffer who publicly complained that Ensign was destroying his life. As so often, betrayal strode hand-in-hand with hypocrisy. Ensign had fiercely censured Bill Clinton for his fling with Monica Lewinsky and called on Clinton to resign since “he has no credibility left”.

He and Darlene have apparently patched things up.

Before Ensign’s tumble in reputation came the discomfiture of another Republican senator, David Vitter. Ensign of Nevada and Vitter of Louisiana both represent states noted for their tolerance towards brothels, facilities to which Vitter took frequent recourse, even while he was prominent in onslaughts on Democrats seeking to put marriage in the blender.
Amid a race for the Louisiana governorship in 2002 came disclosure that Vitter – a Rhodes scholar, married to Wendy, a former prosecutor, with three daughters across the breakfast table – had been an enthusiastic patron of a New Orleans establishment run by Jeanette Maier, aka the “Canal Street Madam”,  who was kind enough to disclose that Vitter “was not into anything unusual or kinky or weird,” and had somehow transferred his frequent public declarations about the importance of a faithful marriage into loyalty to one particular prostitute, Wendy Cortez, took pains to tell the press that no “romantic relationship” had stained  a soundly professional association.

Vitter, went to Washington DC as a senator and in between resounding declarations that marriage is “the most important social institution in human history” found time to frequent another very important institution in human history, viz., a brothel run by the DC Madam, Pamela Martin, who later committed suicide. Exposed by Larry Flynt of Hustler, Vitter issued a standard issue confession of guilt and contrition:  He told his apparently understanding constituents that “ Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there — with God and them.”

Sanford had been touted as a presidential candidate in 2010 and so had Ensign. So too has Newt Gingrich, whose own contribution to the Rotten Republican Husband archive had been to dictate harsh divorce terms to his former wife as she was recovering from a serious operation for cancer.
Probably the most sensible course for Republicans to adopt will be to retain some private investigators to trail the twenty most likely Democratic adulterers. As for presidential candidates in 2010 they might as well try to repeal the second article of the US Constitution and muster behind foreign-born Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has never betrayed the slightest interest in Christianity.

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On June 11, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia introduced his bill to set up a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission. “We find ourselves as a nation,” Webb declared, “in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis”, viz., “the national disgrace of our present criminal justice system” and “the disintegration of this system, day by day and year by year.”  This “is dramatically affecting millions of lives, draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and – most importantly – it is not making our country a safer or a fairer place.”

True words.

The goal of Webb’s legislation?  To establish a national commission to examine and reshape America’s entire criminal justice system, the first such effort in more than forty years. Its aims as outlined by Webb are  to re-focus incarceration policies on criminal activities that threaten public safety; to lower the incarceration rate; to decrease prison violence; to improve prison administration; to establish meaningful re-entry programs for former offenders; to reform drug laws; to improve treatment of the mentally ill; to improve responses to international and domestic criminal activity by gangs and cartels.

What hope of reform?  Read co-editor Cockburn’s report in our latest newsletter, in which subscribers can find important stories  from David Price and Patrick Cockburn. As Price narrates, for much of his active intellectual and political life famed Pentagon critic Professor Seymour Melman was under FBI surveillance, Price has Melman’s FBI file, obtained  under the Freedom of Information Act and as he writes, “the FBI’s monitoring of Melman , his private life and public advocacy shows the role the FBI has long fulfilled as enforcer of the American corporate status quo.”

For Price’s vivid and important story, including such piquant scenes as FBI agents plowing their way through Melman’s oeuvre in search of sedition, subscribe now to get our newsletter. You’ll also be able to read Patrick Cockburn’s detailed report from the Afghan Front.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.