Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hate Crimes

         The System of Dante's Hell

I was for several years the master of an undergraduate residential college, so that I am not unaware that college roommates sometimes treat each other in vile ways demanding redress. Even so, a recent criminal trial just up the road at New Brunswick (NJ), which ended in the conviction of a Rutgers undergraduate (Dharun Ravi) for his serious mistreatment of his roommate, has drawn my attention to the relatively new legal category of “hate crime”.  Ravi grossly abused his roommate’s privacy by spying on him, and by encouraging others to view his secretly recorded sexual activities.  The roommate later committed suicide, and though the prosecution neither claimed nor demonstrated a causal connection, many have drawn the inference; and the gravity of the circumstance probably contributed to Ravi’s conviction of the crime of “bias intimidation”, which is a “hate crime” that might lead to lengthy imprisonment.

            I appear to be in a minority in my disquiet at the very concept of a “hate crime”.  I entertain doubts that a jury could accurately isolate “hate” as the principal motive force behind complex and ambiguous social actions.  (I shall reserve for another day a yet more fundamental objection:  so what if they could?)  But mostly, the confidence with which the press and remote observers diagnose “hate” alarms me. 

             Several weeks ago in Florida a man named George Zimmerman shot and killed a youth named Trayvon Martin.  I cannot imagine that anyone reading this blog is unaware of this appalling affair.  Even on the basis of sketchy and contested details it is very hard, prima facie, to imagine circumstances under which this killing was not stupid and abominable.  It is slightly more conceivable, barely--in light of the possible breadth of a recently instituted “stand-your-ground law” of which I had never before heard--that the act was not illegal.  

            Even as I have been writing this, the latest Newsweek came in the mail.  It documents in statistical detail the dramatically different ways in which black Americans and white Americans are inclined to interpret the episode.  But in fact as yet we simply do not know enough to draw safe conclusions concerning the “objective” facts of the episode, let alone conclusions concerning the mind of George Zimmerman.  Inclination in the absence of factual knowledge is just another, and nicer, term for prejudice.  Nevertheless dozens of pundits, several prominent news personalities, and even some elected members of Congress have felt perfectly confident in identifying this ghastly episode as a “hate crime.”

            That there are gradations of crime seems too obvious to require argument.  Certainly no medievalist is likely to deny the principle.  Most people are familiar with the so-called “six questions of journalism”.  A good reporter ill make clear to the reader the what of a story, its who, when, where, why, and how.  Yet how many people know the origin of these questions?  They derive from what were called the “circumstances” of sin as detailed in the confessional manuals of the later Middle Ages.  Incest was always a no-no, but it was worse to sleep with your aunt than with your cousin, and worse to sleep with your sister than with your aunt.  One of the great lines in world literature comes when the hero of Tom Jones arrives at the (mistaken) conclusion that Mrs. Waters is actually his Mum: “O good Heavens!  Incest—with a mother!”  The stroke of genius there is the indefinite article.  Tom is echoing the casuistry of a printed consanguinity table of an old prayer book!

            Our secular law has long recognized the concept of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the commission of illegal acts.  The guy who kills somebody to take his sneakers and the guy who kills his aged wife because he cannot stand to see her descend yet further into Alzheimer’s are both killers; but few of us would be content to leave it at that.  Yet it would be a very risky business to start a taxonomy of “sneaker crimes,” “Alzheimer crimes,” etc.  If you feel confident about what a “hate crime” is you ought to feel equally confident about a “love crime”.  I don’t feel so confident.

            The system of Dante’s hell, based in the ancient Aristotelian ethical scheme, presents a tripartite hierarchy of dereliction.  All mortal sin will get you into hell, but the carnal obsessions that nearly monopolize our tabloid newspapers—the general Aristotelian category being incontinence—are of a primitive nature.  Worse in Dante’s eyes are the sins of violence.  The naughty lovers Paolo and Francesca are in a relatively high rent district of hell when compared with the abode of the jealous husband who murdered them.  But the worst category is fraud, which involves not merely the indulgence of appetite or the unleashing of irascible passions, but the actual perversion of the reason.  But applying human reason to evil ends is not thought crime.

            In my view “hate crime” is.  In an effort to purge ourselves of all taint of “prejudice,” we presume it virtuous to punish people for what they think–or what we think they think. So far as I am concerned punishing people for what they think is not a slippery slope, but the ski jump at Chamonix.  When I was researching and writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos I had occasion to meditate on the principles of Marxist jurisprudence (aka “revolutionary justice”) that founded the gulag state under Lenin and by the late Thirties under Stalin populated it by the millions.

            The Soviet authorities did not call these wretches “hate criminals”.  They called them “counter-revolutionaries”.  But the only crimes of the counter-revolutionaries were their thoughts, and usually only their thoughts as fabricated or imagined by their enemies.  The fictive and fantastic deeds to which they were often forced to confess flowed naturally from the fictive thoughts attributed to them.  We are still a long way from the gulag mentality, but I regard our “hate crime” legislation as a false step in the wrong direction.