I wrote a novel titled “Where Law Ends,” using part of John Locke’s 1689 quote that goes, “Where law ends, there tyranny begins.” (That’s a fitting description for how President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr disregard the law, but that’s a column for another day.)
My novel tells the fictionalized story of the famous — or infamous as I cast them — Montana Vigilantes, a group of successful men who took the law into their own hands.
The long-accepted account of the vigilantes is they were heroes who had no choice but to rid themselves of criminals and undesirables by lynching them in the remote gold fields of southwest Montana during the Civil War. As I researched the novel, however, I discovered the only contemporary telling of their story was written by one of the vigilantes, a British schoolteacher named Thomas Dimsdale. The more I read Dimsdale’s self-aggrandizing prose, the more suspicious I became of the vigilantes’ actual motives. So I wrote a counternarrative in which the real miscreants are the vigilantes themselves.
There was no need for vigilantism then and no need for it now. Yet, we have modern vigilantes who feel entitled to play judge, jury and, perhaps, executioner, just as the Montana Vigilantes did. Some of them have been showing up at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, armed to the teeth and maybe even ready to pull the trigger.
When 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black, went for a jog in a quiet Brunswick neighborhood last February, white vigilantes decided to citizen arrest him. They followed Arbery, confronted him and allegedly ended his life with two shotgun blasts. Gregory McMichael, his son Travis and William Bryan were indicted last week on murder charges.
Glynn County prosecutors didn’t bring charges against these vigilantes, but after the video of Arbery’s killing went viral, the case was handed over to Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes. I wonder what, if anything, would have happened to the McMichaels and Bryan had there been no video.
What did happen was the hate crimes bill was signed into law last week by Gov. Brian Kemp, which allows enhanced punishment for those convicted of them. A hate crime is any of a variety of offenses motivated by hostility toward the victim on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion or gender.
Had the jogger been white, I doubt we’d know the names of the McMichaels or Bryan.
As reported by the MDJ, “A majority of Cobb’s lawmakers voted for the bill, with 15 of the 21 members of the county’s legislative delegation voting in favor. Voting in opposition were state Reps. Ginny Ehrhart, Ed Setzler and John Carson. … Condemnation from Democrats was swift.”
“’Three Cobb GOP Representatives voted NO on the Hate Crime Bill today. Carson (northeast Cobb, HD 46), Ehrhart (west Cobb, HD 36), Setzler (northwest Cobb, HD 35). Time to consign folks like these to the dustbin of history. Vote them out November 3,’ the Cobb County Democratic Committee said on Facebook.”
Setzler and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, who did not cast a vote, explained their opposition by citing “equality under the law and freedom of speech.” That’s rich given Barr’s protection of Trump (another column), and conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ehrhart emailed the MDJ saying, “My opposition to a ‘hate’ crimes bill is not at all swayed because a high-profile case has dragged this issue into the limelight once again. Empowering the government to ‘get inside the heads’ of its citizens and then dole out stiffer sentences when it finds their viewpoints disagreeable is nothing short of Orwellian.”
In his classic novel “1984,” George Orwell wrote, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” as in three armed white men charged with murdering an unarmed Black man.
“A free country should never select out certain viewpoints and opinions and then punish its citizens for them,” Ehrhart opined. “Even if the viewpoint is an ugly one. Even if the opinion includes hate.”
Adolph Hitler had “viewpoints and opinions.” Here’s one: “By fighting off the Jews, I’m doing the Lord’s work,” he told Germans as he committed the worst hate crime in human history.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a hate crime victim, also had viewpoints: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Last Sunday, Trump retweeted video of a Florida supporter shouting “white power,” adding such folks are “great people.” He then tweeted the image of a white couple pointing their guns at peaceful Black and white protesters in St. Louis passing by their home on a sidewalk. These irresponsible messages undeniably give license to would-be vigilantes.
“(The hate crimes legislation) does not allow the criminalization of thought,” wrote former Gov. Roy Barnes in a letter to the MDJ. “(T)he enhanced punishment is allowed and then only after the jury has found beyond a reasonable doubt (targeting of the victim) was proven.”