Another federal "hate crime" fiasco - Amish beard cutting

A trial in Ohio which has been drawing quite a bit of attention has gone to the jury and is now on hold until Tuesday. It deals with a subject which is still rather murky to many Americans, since it involves the closed society of the Amish. In a rural area of the Buckeye State, the patriarch and members of one extended family – the Mullets – stand accused of assaulting other members of the community and cutting off the beards of the men and the long hair of the women. This is a grave offense to the victims, as their hair carries important symbolism to the Amish. The trial has been underway since last month.

The trial of members of a breakaway Amish sect charged with hate crimes for cutting off the beards and hair of other Amish men and women is set to begin Monday in an Ohio court.

The government revealed Friday that horse mane shears, along with hair samples, recorded jailhouse phone calls, and a camera they say was used to photograph the victims have been entered as evidence in the case.

All 16 defendants have pleaded not guilty, many rejecting plea deals that would have sent them to prison for two to three years. They say the alleged attacks were a matter of internal discipline and not connected to any religious bias.

But at least one of the criminal complaints filed against bishop Samuel Mullet Sr. and members of his family claimed that the group was waging a violent campaign targeted at community members on the other side of a church feud.

They now face potentially lengthy federal prison sentences if they are convicted of conspiracy to violate the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

This is yet another “local story” which could have passed under the radar except for the fact that it touches on a much larger and more troubling national problem which we’ve been dealing with for far too long. If the allegations are true, Mr. Mullet (no… there’s no pun coming, so insert your own if you must) and his family are clearly guilty of assault of some sort. There is no excusing the act of dragging a citizen out of their home, holding them down and forcibly cutting their hair against their will. If guilty, they should be punished.

But… a federal “hate crime”? This seems to fail the test of common sense on at least two levels.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I have long been an opponent of the idea of “hate crimes” in any sense in the American legal system and I see no reason to make an exception here. Our legal system is set up to punish people for their actions when they cross the lines we establish as a community and harm or infringe upon the rights of other citizens. But what we should not be empowered to do is to levy additional punishment for what such people are thinking or, for the most part, even saying while committing such acts. The constitution assures us the freedom to think and – in nearly all cases – speak as we choose, even when the vast majority of citizens find such speech disgusting and abhorrent. It’s part of the price of a free society. (I’ve heard all the arguments trying to conflate motive with this and find them unconvincing, so there’s no need to go over it again.) Even if the Mullet family was doing this for reasons of religious persecution, they should stand against the wheel for what they did, not what they were thinking.

But second, and perhaps more to the point, let’s take as a given that we are to accept the notion of “hate crimes” when evaluating this case. If it were really such an attack based on religion, don’t you normally commit a hate crime against members of a religion which you don’t approve of? These were Amish attacking Amish. They aren’t trying to wipe out the Amish, though the Mullets apparently did disapprove of the way the victims were practicing their beliefs.

I fail to see how this is the federal government’s business. The Mullets stand accused of assault of some fashion. State laws almost always give judges some latitude in sentencing. If they feel that the victims in a given case were particularly traumatized above and beyond the norm or that the perpetrator was particularly evil in their actions, they can assign something closer to the maximum sentence. And it can be done without dragging in the feds and re-branding the crime as an exercise in judging the thoughts or speech of the perpetrators.