Barry Bonds, Mike Vick and Nooses in Jena

Interesting question on the S’port Yuppie blog:

I’m sure many of you heard about the march on Washington Friday. In case you missed it, people from all over the country led by Al Sharpton marched around the Justice Department to demand more enforcement of hate crime laws. . . .

[I]f the federal government can deem it urgent and necessary to intervene on behalf of dogs (i.e. the Michael Vick dog abuse case) and baseball (i.e. the steroid case with Barry Bonds) can’t we at least agree that more federal action should be taken against a hate crime that symbolizes decades of gruesome, brutal, unjust murders committed throughout this country against a race of people?

What’s next is my attempt at an answer.

To begin, I think the author intended the question to be rhetorical, but the answer is far from obvious. There are two very different issues with each of the alleged crimes. First, should the substantive act be a crime, and second, if so, should it be a federal crime? The first questions involves issues of right, wrong, and the responsibilities of the government. It is not enough to say “x is wrong,” you also have to argue “x is so wrong that x ought to be criminalized.” The second question takes you into constitutional law and general policies of federalism. Like it or not, the constitution does not give the federal government carte blanche to create and enforce criminal laws. Even if it did, the wisest policy is often to leave it to the states.

Given the many issues involved, I think there are several reasonable conclusions about which of the three examples deserves federal intervention. In other words, there are a lot more reasons than just race for a person arguing that federal action was essential for Mike Vick and Barry Bonds, but not for whoever hung the nooses in Jena. It might be a belief that symbolic acts like noose-hanging should never be crimes. Or it might be a belief that because the noose hanging was a completely local event, it does not justify federal interaction. It could be something else. Race could be the reason, too, but not necessarily.

Now, here’s my view on all three cases.

I’ve already explained my reasoning for Vick. His case ought not be a crime at all, and definitely not a federal crime. I love my dog, but no amount of harm done to an animal justifies putting a human being in jail (unless the harmed animal belonged to another human, of course). Even if you think humans ought to go to jail because of harm done to an animal, nothing Mike Vick did hurt anyone outside Virginia. Let Virginia’s government take care of it.

As for the noose, I won’t apologize for saying someone ought to have the same right to hang a noose from a tree that they would to burn a flag in a public square (or draw unflattering cartoons of Mohammed). Both are pure forms of expression and thus ought to be fully protected by the first amendment. Both are symbols, they do not cause anyone any concrete harm. At bottom, every argument for criminalizing these expressions is some shade of “it offends me.” I have no doubt that the hurt feelings are real, but hurt feelings don’t justify jail time. They’re the very cheap price of a free society. Don’t like the hurtful expression? Counter it with expressions of your own.

Even if you think the government should be policing our opinions and attitudes, the Jena case still ought not be a federal crime. Sure, the case made national news, but who outside Jena, Louisiana could possibly have been harmed by that noose? There is no justification for making taxpayers in Arkansas, Montana, and Maine pay for protecting the sensibilities of people in Jena, Louisiana. It ought to have been a state issue, at most.

Bonds is a little more tricky.

If this was just a case of him using steroids, I would adamantly oppose federal intervention, and probably even state intervention. By taking steroids, he hurt two things: Himself and baseball. Whether it’s smoking, trans fats, drugs, seat belts or motorcycle helmets, I’m of the view that no government has the right to protect people from themselves. As for the harm to baseball, MLB is perfectly capable of solving its own problems. And if they don’t think steroids are a problem? BFD. There’s no need to spend limited government resources protecting a game, even if it is the national pastime.

The problem, however, is that this is one of those “We couldn’t prove you did anything wrong, but you lied while we were trying” cases. Perjury is serious. The legal system depends on people knowing they will be in deep s**t if they lie under oath. So when folks lie, criminal charges are appropriate. Bonds is accused of lying during a federal investigation, so federal charges are the correct charges.

Still, the initial investigation was just so ridiculous. This isn’t the type of case where the government had a legit charge but could not make it stick. This is the type of case where the charge itself was the problem. So even though Bonds committed what would otherwise be a legit federal crime, I’m going to say that I think he ought to walk.

In short, I don’t think the federal government ought to be intervening on behalf of dogs, or steroids, or nooses.

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2 Comments on “Barry Bonds, Mike Vick and Nooses in Jena”

  1. Blair Says:

    The Justice Department has pointed out that the strongest charge that could be brought against the three white students who hung the nooses would result not in a criminal conviction but in a “finding of delinquency,” the juvenile equivalent of a misdemeanor. The three students came forward and admitted hanging the nooses; they did not commit prejury or lie to a grand jury. Hanging stuff from the tree at Jena High School was a tradition, espcially during football season. The three white students say they hung the nooses to poke fun at friends who were members of the school rodeo team, an ideal they say they got from the movie, Lonesome Dove. Federal investigators and local authorities who investigated the incident are on the record as saying they believe the three students are telling the truth and did not mean the nooses as a racial threat. So it’s doubtful that the Justice Department could obtain a conviction if it did file charges against the three students. The media generall reports only that the three students hung the nooses as a prank, leaving the false impression that the three knew nooses would be regarded as a racial threat, but thought this would be funning. The three students say they were unware nooses had any racial connotations.


  2. […] agree with everything in this post, except that I think local or state laws against animal cruelty are probably okay. Money quote: By […]


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