October 23, 2009

Yesterday, the Senate passed the Defense appropriations bill, and actually garnered some 28 "No" notes from Republicans who otherwise would normally be eager to jump on a defense-spending bill.

Their reason? Well, attached to the bill was the nation's first real federal hate-crime law. And that, it seems, was too much for them.

But then, that's par for the course for the modern Republican Party, which ever since the days of Nixon has come to represent the knuckle-dragging bloc of American culture, which resists efforts to expand and protect the civil rights of all Americans tooth and claw every step of the way -- mainly by appealing to people's irrational fears that granting civil rights to others erodes their own rights ... and usually conflating rights with privileges along the way.

With President Obama having promised to sign the bill into law, however, all this sound and fury has finally come to naught. And for that, it's worth standing back and appreciating what a historic moment it actually is.

The passage of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act really is a momentous occasion: It marks the first time in history that Americans have collectively taken an effective stand against the thugs and bullies who have used violence through the course of our history to threaten and oppress whole populations of minorities.

Here's Brian Levin's summary at HuffPo:

The United States Senate passed landmark legislation today that expands the coverage and protection of federal hate crime laws to now include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability. While a 1994 federal law technically covered gays, the scope of the law was so narrow that it was hardly ever used. Today’s legislation is expected to be signed by President Obama soon. It marks the first practical expansion of the most broadly applicable criminal civil rights law since 1968.

Moreover, as Joe Solomonese at the Human Rights Campaign observed, this law marks "our nation's first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."

It has been a long and arduous -- not to mention frustrating -- effort. I have been observing hate-crimes laws since their beginnings: my home state, Idaho, passed one of the nation's first bias-crime statutes in 1981, largely in response to the onset of crime associated with the Aryan Nations setting up shop in the Panhandle. (To the state's lasting shame, both of its senators voted against this bill.) My second book was an examination of the phenomenon of bias crimes and the enforcement of the laws dealing with them -- and all along, it has been clear that Congress needed to act.

What kept them, of course, was a Republican Party fully in the thrall of the Religious Right, which has fought any expansion of a federal bias-crime bill generally, while doing so under the rubric of opposing the "homosexual agenda." This bill had actually passed both houses of Congress three times previously, and was derailed each time by Republican machinations.

But that's only a small part of a much bigger picture. Passage of a federal bias-crime statute finally means that we have overcome our many previous failures to stand up to the perpetrators of terroristic crimes. Remember, if you will, how the Senate back in 2005 apologized for its failures to ever pass an anti-lynching statute back in the 1920 and 1930s, when lynching was a national problem -- even as it continued to fail to enact a law to combat the modern descendant of the lynch mob, namely, the multiple perpetrators of bias crimes.

Back when a federal hate-crimes bill was being stymied by George W. Bush and the Republican Congress in 2007, I wrote this:

The harsh truth is this: Bush and his cohort on the religious and mainstream right, for all their oft-espoused love of "freedom" and "liberty," simply don't care about the very real freedoms of millions of Americans -- not just gays and lesbians, but people of color, of foreign extraction, of varying faiths, of the "weaker sex," and people with disabilities. Because these are the people whose freedoms are systematically and violently harmed by haters and the violent thugs who feed off their bile.

Hate crimes, as I have often remarked, are one of the important ways our freedoms can be taken away by our fellow citizens rather than the government. Laws against them are designed to defend those freedoms while keeping our other cherished freedoms -- notably freedom of speech -- fully intact.

We should have learned this lesson over the failure of the anti-lynching laws -- which were defeated under the cover of nearly identical arguments, all similarly specious. As with the current crop, these arguments really are just cardboard facades that cover the real reason for the opposition -- namely, plain old-fashioned bigotry.

Prime examples of this were the sounds of unhappiness from the Religious Right upon word of the bill's passage:

Not everyone was pleased, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins told the Associated Press that act was a "part of a radical social agenda that could ultimately silence Christians and use the force of government to marginalize anyone whose faith is at odds with homosexuality."

Byron York tried to pretend that attaching the bill to the Defense Appropriations bill signified its weakness, though he seems unaware that the bill actually passed both houses with strong majorities -- as it did in all three of its previous incarnations, ultimately killed by Republicans who maneuvered it to death by attaching it to the Defense Appropriations bill.

Then there was Rep. John "Oompa Loompa" Boehner, who decided that the inclusion of gays and lesbians was the problem, because the bill was intended to cover only people for their immutable characteristics":

Last week, House Republican Leader John Boehner objected to House passage of a bill that would expand hate crime laws and make it a federal crime to assault people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

"All violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously, no matter what the circumstance," he said. "The Democrats' 'thought crimes' legislation, however, places a higher value on some lives than others. Republicans believe that all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance."

Based on that statement, CBSNews.com contacted Boehner's office to find out if the minority leader opposes all hate crimes legislation. The law as it now stands offers protections based on race, color, religion and national origin.

In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner "supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics."

It should be noted that the current law does not include gender, though the expanded legislation would cover gender as well as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

"He does not support adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes," Smith continued.

Boehner's position, then, appears to be grounded in the notion that immutable characteristics should be protected under hate crimes laws. And while religion is an immutable characteristic, his office suggests, sexual orientation is not.

Northeastern University professor Jack Levin, who co-authored the first book written about hate crimes, told Hotsheet that "to use immutability as a criterion doesn't make any sense at all."

"Especially if he supports the current stand," Levin continued. "Religion is clearly not ascribed. It's not built into the organism. People can change it at any time and people do."

Republicans, however, have never been shy about coming up with every excuse they can devise -- even bogus ones -- to oppose these laws. Another favorite is the libertarian argument that bias-crime laws create "thought crimes" and thereby "threaten our civil liberties", even though the real-world effect of the laws is to actually enhance our civil liberties by blunting the effects of the people who resort to threats and violence to take away the rights of others:

Have you ever noticed how, when libertarians and right-wingers talk about "threats to our freedoms," the only source of those threats is the government?

It's perhaps useful to remember that, over the course of American history, the greatest threats to the liberty of American citizens have come not from the government, but from our fellow citizens. Particularly, those directed by white citizens against nonwhites.

Recall, for instance, that the most egregious example of the removal of citizens' civil rights in America occurred primarily through extralegal means -- namely, during the lynching period, when thousands of blacks were summarily murdered in the most horrible fashion imaginable, often merely for the sin of being successful by white standards (this made them "uppity" and thus marked for extermination).

Lynching was a form of socially sanctioned terrorism against the black community whose entire purpose was to "keep the niggers down." It largely succeeded, until the wellsprings of the civil rights movement began working to tear it down as a broadly accepted American institution.

The legacy of lynching remains with us today, though, in the form of hate crimes -- whose purpose, once again, is to oppress and eliminate targeted minorities.

Finally, we've taken a serious step toward dealing with this problem in real time, and not just regretting our inaction in distant retrospect. For that, a lot of people -- especially those who've been fighting to pass this law for many, many years -- deserve a long and large round of applause.

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