…. I thought I'd take a look back at how we got here and what our current challenge, as a society, is now becoming.
The battle has been raging for quite some time now. The lines have been clearly drawn and both sides see their fight, and resistance to the opposition, as the one true hope for justice in
. Hate crime legislation is creating some powerful enemies and some very strange bedfellows. Emotions are running high on both sides and with every election and judicial appointment the stakes seem to rise exponentially. With the endless mounds of case studies, the countless debates and depositions, and the sheer volume of talk radio pundits and sermonizers, all trying to out yell each other, I began to wonder how we got here, and what does all of this say about us as a society.
In our metaphorical toddler years, not unlike the terrible twos, and long before Hammurabi’s code, people were left to their own devices to mete out justice. A personal sense of “vengeance in the eyes of the victim” was the rule of law and might was right. The hierarchy was clear to all, and a change in due process only happened, quite literally, over someone’s dead body. While this can make for some pretty dramatic epics, heroic sagas, and in at least one case, an amazing opera plot, it doesn’t work well when trying to create a just society.
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood when, in the formation of small communities, we agreed to allow a third party to help us settle our differences. These arbitrators took the form of judges, priests, kings, prophets, shamen and various ancestral leaders. Although it was the equivalence of going to the playground teacher and telling on someone, it was still quite a step forward. The obvious weakness was that justice was dependant upon the insights, intelligence and ethics of one person. While the tales of justice and wisdom from this era are legendary, so are the atrocities. On the one hand, we have several accounts of the wisdom of leaders like Solomon, on the other; we have the genocidal violence of Joshua.
Working within codified rules and laws led to some fairly amazing feats of mental gymnastics. (To further this menacingly simplistic and mildly offensive developmental metaphor,) It’s junior high all over again, complete with the most creative and outlandish explanations imaginable for the most outrageous of human behaviors. We set out to prove the theorem that the human mind is never more resourceful than when it wants to justify itself. It was nothing short of miraculous. For the first time, motive, circumstances, predispositions and intentions came into the equation. We bid farewell to an eye for an eye, and began our journey into the complexities of human nature, and how the justice system can best serve society as a whole and the individual. Murder was given degrees, each with several subcategories and sub-points.
Add to that democracy and the concept of majority rules, and you get quite an intricate system of rules of order, parliamentary procedure, codes of ethics, and due process, all to ensure that the minority is heard while the majority prevails. Very enlightened. Very sophisticated. Very Harvard Law. This was a huge step for our collective consciousness, as well as our consciences, forcing us to look deeply into the interconnectedness of our attitudes and actions as individuals and as a society. The only flaw in majority rules, is that sometimes the majority is morally and intrinsically wrong. Slavery was always wrong, even when the majority thought otherwise. History is chalk full of examples where the majority prevailed over truth. It seems the only thing our systems can’t protect us from is ourselves and our susceptibility to mob mentality. Although we no longer wield torches and storm castles, we still are very capable when it comes to inciting a mob. With the advent of PACs, lobbyists, talk radio and pulpits to say nothing of TV and the internet, we have created some subtle and truly devious ways to try to make everyone see things our way.
From our earliest recorded moments as a species, our sense of justice has been very important to us. When our systems proved inadequate, because of new insight or experience, time after time, and against formidable opposition, we opted to make the necessary changes and adapt to the new reality. We said, collectively, that we are a better and more noble society when we recognize and incorporate these new insights into our systems of justice. Which brings me back to hate crime legislation. (I bet you thought I would never get there.)
We all recognize that there is no punishment capable of bringing back a lost loved one, or undoing violence. Hopefully, we also recognize that one person’s life is not more valuable than another’s. This is partly what is clouding the issues. Hate crime laws are not about the value of the victim. They are about the motive of the violence. Very similar to that moment in our relatively recent history when we said that “malice and aforethought” constitute a different and more terrible form of murder, and should be punished as such. Legislative bodies across
and around the world are even now attempting to draft laws that recognize hate as a factor when handing down punishment. The good news is that this concept is starting to gain more world-wide interest, acceptance and a more serious discussion. It appears that in many places, humanity is wanting to stand up and say that violent acts against anyone, based solely on their being a part of a specific group or sub-culture within society, are a more heinous wrong, and ought to be more severely punished. The bad news is that the biggest discussion and most heated debate points are being leveled over who should be excluded. This is very sad, and what this says about us as a society is truly disheartening. Yet there are a few signs of new hope.
The family of Larry Byrd, the man who was brutally killed in
a few years ago, said it best when they refused to have their name attached to a hate crime bill that was to be named to memorialize their loss because it excluded the gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgendered community. They said “We’re not free unless we are all free. There is no justice unless there is justice for all”