Raving moralist Texas Republican. Y’know what? I kinda agree with him.

So, I clicked through to watch this video because it was posted on Joe. My. God with the headline “Hate Crimes Bill Will Legalize Bestiality, Corpse-Fucking, Pedophilia, Lead To Nazism.” Who could resist? I watched the video. Now, it starts off with a lot of bluster about “the sociological attack on what used to be American values” and “holding our troops hostage” while the bill is debated. Gohmert does not come off well. (Note to Texas: your rep is right. However, while he thinks ‘American values’ is the key phrase, I would say it’s ‘USED TO BE.’)

However, if you keep watching, Gohmert makes a couple of points that had me nodding my head.

1. He says that Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. were horribly murdered. Indeed. He goes on to say that he would advocate a law that would allow the Byrd family to select the vehicle and the rope, and to execute Byrd’s murderers using the same method they used to kill him. Now, this is of course barbaric Texas vitriol, no? Well, yes. However.

I’m against the death penalty, for multiple reasons, but primarily because I don’t trust the state to apply it properly. There have been 244 convicts exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989. (Unsurprisingly, 146 of the exonerees were black.) And DNA evidence has been available in less than 10% of cases. ‘Nuff said.

Advocates often argue that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent, preventing violent acts from ever occurring. If that is the primary purpose for the death penalty, then we’re doing it all wrong. To have a forceful deterrent effect, executions should take place in public, be widely broadcast, and should be gruesome and hideous to behold. Why do they take place in hushed, restricted-access rooms, by the quietest means available? Once you’ve declared that a person is so irretrievably evil that s/he does not deserve to live, you’ve exempted him/her from the human race. If you grant yourself the authority to kill, then your authority is supreme. There is no longer any justification for the ‘mercy’ of a painless death.

But we aren’t truly concerned with executions being humane. We are concerned with concealing the inhumanity from spectators. Research has indicated that lethal injections, for example, cause excruciating pain. The ‘cocktail’ of chemicals used for lethal injection include, first, a paralytic agent that prevents the victim from writhing or screaming. Thus, observers are spared the most visceral experience of their own actions. They grant themselves the illusion that their victim has slipped peacefully into a sleep-like death. This, to me, is an unacceptable hypocrisy.

If we’re going to use the death penalty, we should be witnesses to the true gravity of the act. The web of complicity extends to every member of a society that tolerates its state’s actions. All of us should be witnesses to our own decisions. If we decide that we are collectively willing to execute criminals, then we should collectively experience the uncomfortable fact that executions are torturously painful, and discard the illusion that killing can be accomplished silently and peacefully.

2. Gohmert goes on to attack a line in the proposed bill that would criminalize “inducement” to hate crimes. He claims that the wording would allow the prosecution, as accessories, of religious leaders who preached intolerance for homosexuality. Gohmert speculates that a “pastor, rabbi, or imam” could declare homosexuality wrong, and then be prosecuted after a member of his congregation commits a murder deemed to be a hate crime.

Now, I read the text of the act, and found nothing about ‘inducement.’ In fact, there is a specific clause stating “evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial UNLESS that evidence relates directly to that offense.” However, that still leaves some legally grey space: if the hateful motive is an aspect of the crime, carrying additional penalties and special handling, then is the hate itself criminalized? And if it is, would those who stoke hatred through rhetoric be accomplices to the crime of hate?

It’s an interesting facet of American jurisprudence (and public opinion) that we accept any wild theory or objectionable belief, UNLESS and UNTIL that belief is acted upon. If a college freshman gets too drunk at a frat party and sets a car on fire, he’s prosecuted (maybe) and maybe gets a fine or probation. But if an anarchist who is acting from his convictions sets a car on fire, he gets 22 years. We’re all for ‘tolerating’ the beliefs of those who disagree with us, as long as those beliefs are not powerful enough to motivate significant shifts in behavior.

I don’t believe we should criminalize beliefs or opinions, no matter how objectionable they are. I think we should face down our opponents in open debate, on the streets, and in well-organized citizens’ militias, if need be. (Joke. Really.) I don’t think we should use the police or the military to suppress objectionable thought.

The final version of the bill, which was incorporated as an amendment to a military appropriations bill, includes a provision that was, presumably, included to placate those members of Congress who believed free speech and religious expression were endangered. It tiptoes rather carefully, though, I would say:

“Nothing in this division shall be construed to prohibit any constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct or activities (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), including the exercise of religion protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States and peaceful picketing or demonstration. The Constitution does not protect speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence.”

Look, there should be no necessity to amend a bill stating that it does not intend to violate the Constitution: ALL bills are (or should be) held to a Constitutional test. And it’s kind of insulting that the amendment itself reminds us, school-marmishly, what the Constitution does NOT protect. Cold comfort. “Constitutionally protected speech” has been construed very narrowly, and the definition seems to shrink every year that Congress goes into session. We have RICO, which essentially criminalizes association. We have the Patriot Act, which allows federal monitoring of communications, including any communication between any American citizen and any foreign national. And on and on – you’ve been paying attention; I don’t have to enumerate the list.

I know Obamania is still ascendant in some quarters; I know that some people trust the Democrats. But is it so outrageous, in this climate, to be a little concerned that hate speech laws might become free speech violations?

As any spy knows, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

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