Punish the Thought

Hate Crime: A crime motivated by racial, religious, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, or other prejudice.

Over the past few years, laws have been passed that increase the punishment for committing some crimes if the court determines that the motivation for the crime was based on hatred for the victim’s group identity.  How does the court determine the motivating cause?  The evidence can only come from the defendant or from witnesses to statements made by the defendant.

If a crime is deemed to be a hate crime, the perpetrator is punished for what he was thinking when he committed the crime.  How can anyone except the perpetrator himself know that?

This kind of thinking has a religious ring to it:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

— The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-28:

Sins do not even require the commission of an act to be condemned.  Merely thinking about it is apparently sufficient in the eyes of God.  Maybe it can be argued that God knows what a person is thinking, but it’s hard to believe that a court of mere mortals can determine that.

The Bible goes further and requires belief in God in order to reach Heaven.  Unbelievers, regardless of their good deeds or good morals, are doomed to eternal punishment.

John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

If religious people want to believe that, they are free to do so.  But when we pass laws that punish people for their thoughts, we are heading back to the Middle Ages, when people were tortured and killed for their beliefs during the Inquisition.

A person who commits a hate crime has committed a crime, and should be punished for what he/she has done.  Even if they incriminate themselves by admitting their hatred, should honesty increase the punishment? Knowing that the punishment will be increased, very few rational people would make such a confession. That leaves the determination of the perpetrator’s thoughts to hearsay and guesses.

Religious believers should be content that their god, who supposedly knows what the perp was thinking, will take care of any further punishment if he deems it necessary. We nonbelievers cannot have that confidence in supernatural wisdom to provide justice, so we should consider carefully if people should be punished for their alleged thoughts.


Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design.  He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects.  His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two.  Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com.  You can contact him at bigelowbert@aol.com.

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