Perhaps because I’m on vacation, perhaps because we’re in the dog days of August, but I’m having some mental problems grappling with the distinction between appropriate times to judge acts and appropriate times to judge intentions. I think I might have discovered a bright line between the two, but I’m not sure. Because I’m having troubles nailing this one down, the post will be somewhat more unstructured than usual. Your help with distinctions and conclusions will be appreciated.
My thinking on this actually started a few days ago when I did my post “Thought Crimes.” That’s the one where, using the federal hate crimes case against Stanislav Shmulevich, the guy who vandalized Korans, I noted my discomfort with the government making one crime worse than another because of the nature of the victim, rather than the nature of the the crime. Mike Devx left an interesting comment (# 10), which discusses the fact that the law does try to analyze a person’s intention when it comes to murder.
My thinking on the subject accelerated when I read about Iran’s latest rash of executions. Amir Taheri, writing in the WSJ’s Opinion Journal, describes what’s going on:
It is early dawn as seven young men are led to the gallows amid shouts of “Allah Akbar” (Allah is the greatest) from a crowd of bearded men as a handful of women, all in hijab, ululate to a high pitch. A few minutes later, the seven are hanged as a mullah shouts: “Alhamd li-Allah” (Praise be to Allah).
The scene was Wednesday in Mashad, Iran’s second most populous city, where a crackdown against “anti-Islam hooligans” has been under way for weeks.
The Mashad hangings, broadcast live on local television, are among a series of public executions ordered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month as part of a campaign to terrorize an increasingly restive population. Over the past six weeks, at least 118 people have been executed, including four who were stoned to death. According to Saeed Mortazavi, the chief Islamic prosecutor, at least 150 more people, including five women, are scheduled to be hanged or stoned to death in the coming weeks.
The latest wave of executions is the biggest Iran has suffered in the same time span since 1984, when thousands of opposition prisoners were shot on orders from Ayatollah Khomeini.
The campaign of terror also includes targeted “disappearances” designed to neutralize trade union leaders, student activists, journalists and even mullahs opposed to the regime. According to the latest tally, more than 30 people have “disappeared” since the start of the new Iranian year on March 21. To intimidate the population, the authorities also have carried out mass arrests on spurious grounds.
According to Gen. Ismail Muqaddam, commander of the Islamic Police, a total of 430,000 men and women have been arrested on charges related to drug use since April. A further 4,209 men and women, mostly aged between 15 and 30, have been arrested for “hooliganism” in Tehran alone. The largest number of arrests, totaling almost a million men and women according to Mr. Muqaddam, were related to the enforcement of the new Islamic Dress Code, passed by the Islamic Majlis (parliament) in May 2006.
Most of those arrested, he says, spent a few hours, or at most a few days, in custody as “a warning.” By last week, 40,000 were still in prison. Of these, 20,363 men and women are held on charges related to violating the Islamic Dress Code. According to the Deputy Chief of Police Gen. Hussein Zulfiqari, an additional 6,204 men and women are in prison on charges of “sexual proximity” without being married.
The regime especially fears the growing free trade union movement. In the past four months, free trade unionists have organized 12 major strikes and 47 demonstrations in various parts of the country. They showed their muscle on International Labor Day on May 1 when tens of thousands of workers marched in Tehran and 18 provincial capitals. The regime retaliated by arresting scores of trade unionists and expelling many others.
My first thought was, are we Americans, who have a death penalty, going to be accused of hypocrisy when we criticize this wave of Iranian executions? My second, inchoate, thought was, no, there’s something fundamentally different about what’s going on in Iran.
Last anecdote: We watched 300 last night, which was part accurate historic representation, part homo-erotic bloodbath, and part call to freedom. The heroes are applauded for their fanatic fight to death. Funnily enough, we Americans associated ourselves in our own minds with those Spartan heroes, not because they were suicidally committed to war, but because they fought for freedom — while the Iranians, who are suicidally committed to war, took umbrage at being portrayed as weird empire builders. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they, too, could have been viewed as the good guys fighting against all odds.
So, what we’ve got here the following scenarios:
1. When the issue is the nature of the victim, I don’t want the government trying to delve into my brain. All that matters is the act.
2. When the issue is the nature of the crime, it can be a good thing for the government to consider the state of mind. If I kill someone, regardless of whom I kill, it should matter if I did so accidentally, to defend myself, or out of the basest of anti-social motives.
3. Running one and two, above, together, the horror of the Iranian executions is that the government is executing people for thought crimes, with the acts being almost incidental. This is as different as can be from the American system which takes the act — murder — and then looks to thoughts/intentions as a way to exculpate the killer.
4. When it comes to war, war is war — people kill, people die. It matters then, very much, what people’s motives are. Do they kill and die to make the world a better place or do they kill and die to enslave other people? I told my kids the story of Leonidas and the Spartans and they instantly understood that distinction and were easily able to appreciate that the Spartans were the good guys and the Persians the bad, despite all the killing each dealt out or wanted to deal out. They also understood the amazing notion of self-sacrifice so that some people are willing to die so that others may live.