"Thought crimes" is a clever, easy-to-swallow slogan, but trying to suggest that newly expanded hate crime laws will put your bias on trial is foolish and reveals an ignorance to the very real violence targeted at minorities, including the disabled and gays.
In his spirited defense of dirty minds, Sen. Jim DeMint stood on the Senate floor and offered a list of irrational pleas to prevent the hate crimes measure from passing. The best of these was that it was tied to an unrelated Defense Department funding bill, which is regrettable, but that fact alone didn't compel DeMint to vote for it.
His worst argument was that this new law would somehow protect pedophiles who claimed they were being discriminated against due to a disability. I have faith that the criminal justice system will not stand for such an abuse of the law.
DeMint also said the new hate crimes law would prosecute thoughts.
"If we pass this conference report, opinions will become crimes," he said.
You're not going to be prosecuted for your beliefs or your thoughts. DeMint has expressed his own thoughts on gays — unapologetically saying during his first run for Senate in 2004 that gays shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools. And he's free to continue believing that.
You can hate gays with a vehement passion. Crush Tim Gunn's head between your fingers when you see him on television. Scrawl "fag" all over the wall on your Facebook page. Break Clay Aiken albums over your head. Send big fat checks in support of anti-gay referendums in battleground states. It's all legal.
What you can't do is take that hate and translate it into violence. Hate crime laws weren't created to protect black people from racial slurs; they were created to protect blacks from people carrying nooses.
Some opponents argue that this makes it worse if you beat up a gay guy than if you beat up a straight guy. A straight white guy should have the same protection under this law as anybody else. Let's just hope that the small sect of puritanical gays hiding in their nicely-decorated caves don't launch their plot for a fashionable worldwide cleansing.
In truth, the sexuality, race, or gender of the victim makes no difference in these cases. A hate crime is all about the suspect. Like most any violent crime, it's the motive that matters. A crime of passion is weighed differently than a carefully planned murder. In other cases, circumstances like whether you were defending yourself or if it was a simple accident can make a difference.
The new law will deter potential crimes, and it will allow federal intervention when investigating cases, but the sentencing is up to the courts. And it's understandably difficult to prosecute these cases because, ironically, we don't know what the suspect is thinking. The proof usually had to come from the smoking gun of a legible manifesto or an admissible confession. And it's up to the judge or the jury to weigh the evidence and determine what is and isn't a hate crime.
As for the suggestion that this is a "special" right, that's kind of like saying boiled peanuts have special rights as the state peanut. The peanut bill, hardly given a second thought by most legislators, says that we like our boiled peanuts. Well, the hate crimes bill says that we like our diversity and that we, as a society, will not allow our neighbors to be chased off or shot at like deer just because somebody has a chip on their shoulder fostered by religious zealotry or some genetically-ingrained need to eliminate the more evolved person next door.
The law won't stop all hate crimes, and it really won't stop backwards people from thinking what they want to think. After all, the Klan still comes out from under its rock about once a year to march on Columbia (and, it's important to note, they don't get arrested for it).
No, what stops hate crimes is a community that stands up and says, "No more." It's people who stand with the oppressed (be they white or black, gay or straight, men or women). The law only does so much. The heavy lifting is up to you.