OK, then, “intent”

OK, then, “intent” April 7, 2007

One nice thing about blogging is it gives us ordinary citizens the same prerogative that members of Congress enjoy to "revise and extend" our remarks.

Several commenters argued that the previous post blurs the distinction between "motive" and "intent" — and that rather than use these terms interchangeably, I ought to have used only "intent" throughout.

Fair enough. Let's do a universal search and replace:

* * * * * * * * *

Intent is a monumentally important part of our criminal code. Identical deeds can be very different crimes if the intent in the two cases are different. By intent, of course, we mean what the criminal is thinking. …

Different intent, different crimes and thus appropriately different punishments. Different thoughts, different crimes and thus appropriately different punishments.

The reason I chose Tony Perkins for this little review of the obvious is that Perkins doesn't believe in any of this. He thinks any consideration of intent is out of bounds in a criminal statute. Different punishments for different intent is, to Perkins, legislating "thought crimes."

Thus, Perkins believes, there is no legitimate difference among the cases above — no legitimate legal distinction between manslaughter and first-degree murder. To pretend there is such a distinction is to criminalize intent — to criminalize thought.

* * * * * * * * *

The main point is unchanged. Intent matters. To pretend that hate-crimes are unique because they "criminalize intent" is to ignore that intent is a factor in almost every kind of crime. Intent can be a mitigating factor, or it can be an aggravating factor. It can be exculpatory, or it can implicate the suspect in additional crimes. This is nothing new.

If someone beats up Person X, that's a crime. Assault is assault is assault. And it's certainly true, as Perkins and the FRC argue, that assault is already against the law. But if Person X was selected as a victim because the assailant intended to "send a message" — i.e., to terrorize — everyone else like Person X, then the assailant has not only committed one crime. In addition to the assault, the assailant has terrorized an entire community of people, and done so intentionally. That is also a crime and those victims too deserve justice and the protection of the law.

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