Sunday, March 2, 2008

TIME: But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln...

So in the most recent piece of dipshittery to come out of TIME magazine, John Cloud wrote a gem about the recent Lawrence King murder. After the obligatory "what a tragedy" crocodile tears, Cloud settles in on his point, which is that gay rights groups overreached after the murder by calling for passage of the Matthew Shepherd Act and saying such extremist, incendiary things as
Our hearts go out to Lawrence's family — and to all young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids who are — right now, right this minute — being bullied and beaten in school while adults look the other way.
Here's his response:
GLSEN itself has published a great deal of survey data showing that most gay kids aren't suffering the way King did. Though the organization paints a still overall grim picture for young gays, fully 78% of gay and transgender kids say they feel safe at school, according to a 2005 GLSEN report. According to another GLSEN survey released in 2006, only 18% of gay and transgender students said they had been assaulted in 2005 because of their sexual orientation (only 12% — probably many of the same kids — said they had been assaulted because of the way they express their gender).
Let me get this straight. 22% of LGBT kids in America don't feel safe in their schools, and a full 18% have been assaulted, and that's a good thing? Cloud does a complicated dance around the facts here, obscuring the number of kids who aren't safe by focusing on the ones who are. But his reasoning makes about as much sense as responding to a tragedy like the World Trade Center attacks with "but think of how many people didn't die that morning!" It's as wrongheaded as the apocryphal reporter who asked Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband's assassination, "but apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" (Incidentally, less than 10% of U.S. presidents have been successfully assassinated. Better end the secret service: our president is clearly safe.)
Of course, King wasn't just teased — he was put to death. But GLSEN has found that the frequency of anti-gay harassment and assault at schools has dropped steady through this decade.
The most infuriating part about this article is how close he gets to making the right arguments, but how he just can't hold course long enough to actually seal the deal. "Kids are dying because of their orientation...but not as many of them, so it's ok."
Still, it's hard to look at the photo of King's fragile little face and not want to do something. Expanding federal power to prosecute hate crimes sounds like a good idea, unless you are (as I am) opposed to the whole enterprise of criminalizing people's thoughts.
Oh dear. Not this again. This is really a singularly embarrassing legal argument to make. I'm not a lawyer, but even I know that a fundamental principle of criminal law in the United States (and almost everywhere else) is mens rea, which translates literally as "guilty mind." Mens rea is the difference, for example, between murder (which requires malice aforethought) and manslaughter (which only requires negligence). To distinguish between them, you need—you guessed it—to figure out what people were thinking before and during the crime. Nearly every crime in the United States legal system has an element of mens rea—that's how essential criminalizing people's thoughts is to the way law works in this country. So really, it's more than a little specious for Mr. Cloud to suggest that hate crimes legislation uniquely criminalizes thoughts, and it certainly indicates more about his vacuous desire to wish away hate crimes than it does about his knowledge of the law.

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