Thought police

On Thursday, Congress gave final approval and sent to President Obama legislation to add gays to the list of groups covered by U.S. hate-crime laws.

The new expansion of the law would also give the U.S. Justice Department expanded authority to prosecute such crimes when local authorities don’t act.

“Hate crimes affect not just the victim — they victimize the entire community,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “We cannot allow our communities to be terrorized by hatred and violence.”

In fact, it appears federal lawmakers can’t do much about it — except to load up the statutes with more feel-good verbiage.

“Hate crimes are wrong and that’s why they are already illegal,” explained Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. “There’s no such thing as a criminal thought — only criminal acts. Once we endorse the concept of a thought crime, where will we draw the line?”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone being beaten or murdered out of an excess of respect or affection. Prosecutors, judges and juries already have some leeway to seek and impose harsher punishments on those whose crimes they find particularly heinous — as well they should. But the idea that some groups deserve more legal protection than others, depending on the assailant’s intent, asks the aforementioned prosecutors, judges and juries to indulge in mind-reading.

It’s relatively “OK” to bash someone over the head and steal their last dime if the assailant doesn’t voice any knowledge or concern about his victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation?

The question here is not whether those with evil intent should be able to physically harm or commit other crimes against gays or cross-dressers — or members of any other minority — with impunity. Of course they should not. The problem comes with the unintended consequences of attempting to afford more protection of law to some groups than to others.

As columnist Richard Cohen of The Washington Post notes: “I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime. If they are not already deterred by the conventional penalties — prison, etc. — then why would additional penalties deter them? And if, in fact, they kept their mouths shut, refrained from the N-word or the F-word or the K-word … then they would not be accused of hate — merely of murder or some such trifle.”

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