Acts versus intentions

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.


9 Responses

  1. BW, What Taheri is describing is occurring in Iran is most certainly different than what occurs in the US legal system. The mullhas are a bunch of fascists enforcing not just behavior but thought. After reading all of Taheri’s article, what’s happening now in Iran looks more the Terror of the French Revolution.
    The problem with tolerating the inherently unjust concept of hate crime laws is that such laws tolerate the concept that certain thoughts are illegal. A thought does not kill someone.
    I could think about killing a child molester, but if I do not act on such a though, there is no crime. If I slugged a child molester in the jaw, and he died of a heart attack at the time, I might be convicted of manslauter. If I bought a gun, loaded it, put it to the guy’s head, and pulled the trigger, the verdict should be obvious.
    It’s politically correct to hate child molesters. Let’s make the discussion a bit more disturbing. Substitute Jew for child molester.The punishments should be the same.
    A strong, democratic society should tolerate all thought.
    Such a society should punish damaging acts. When faced with an act, the society is permitted to look at the thoughts of the actor to determine intent, but not to use the presence of the thoughts themselves to determine punishment.
    Hate is self-destructive. Christ implied that, many current philosophies of life state that. Hate can cloud accurate thought, in combat or in conversation. But legislation can not stop hate. The individual alone can decide to do that.
    As far as the poor guy who flushed the Koran, did anyone get hurt? Physically? No. Did anyone get hurt emotionally? I guess so from the yelling, but is it the duty of the state to aswage hurt feelings? I do not think so. I didn’t like the placing of Jesus in a toilet as an alleged act of “art”, but I didn’t call for the cops either. A strong society calls for strong individuals. As far as injured parties goes, where did the flusher intend to defficate later on?
    When a society starts legislating correct thought, it becomes weaker. When said society acts on that legislation with punishment of though, it begins it’s on destruction.
    It is almost unbelievable what is happening in Iran. I pray for the people there.

  2. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm Room…] Share Article Allah, Iran, Islam, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Islamic, Ayatollah Khomeini, Americans    Sphere: Related Content | Trackback URL […]

  3. Out of topic, but I wanted to make sure Mike got my reply to his other comment.

    I use wordpress, Mike, so I get a longer list of comments that update due to wordpress feature dashboard “my comments”.

    That was in reply to your comment about this thread going into the archives.

  4. They also understood the amazing notion of self-sacrifice so that some people are willing to die so that others may live.

    That’s perhaps because they weren’t brainwashed. And what do I mean by brainwashed?

    Watch the cute little girl child.

    Your help with distinctions and conclusions will be appreciated.

    As you’ve heard before from me, Book, I rely upon two primary objects to test ethical decisions. Meta-Golden rule and the principle of reciprocity.

    The Meta-Golden Rule demands that anyone that would lock a person up for X, would also be willing to submit to the same judgement if they did the same thing as X. Iran violates this rule. And not only because they rigged the system concerning their women. In point of fact their oppression of women violates the Meta-Golden Rule 5 ways to sunday.

    The principle of reciprocity then demands that Iran be able to take what they dish out. Because they whine everytime we talk about something wrong they did, when they cheerfully execute helpless women and men, means that they violate the principle of reciprocity as well. The normal reply to those obeying the principle would be something to the effect that the executions were necessary and that we would do the same things if we were in their situation. Instead Iran will predictably attack the US and say we can’t judge. Iran can judge women and men. But we can’t judge them? Very nice and reciprocal.

    If you want a story about the same kinds of heroics as 300 without the sexual tones and the weird body shapes, I would recommend that you watch In the Beginning. Second movie of the Babylon 5 series. I just watched it after recommending it to a friend, and it is still good. It is a good lesson in how to see a war from both perspectives. Could be a useful lesson to apply to Iraq.

  5. Might be rated young enough for the children too!

  6. Bookworm,
    Your children are very, very fortunate. They probably already realize it, but they will undoubtedly increase in their appreciation for their upbringing as they become adults. That tale of the Spartans should be a staple of western education.

  7. Book,
    I have puzzled a little over the last day over yoour description of the “homoerotic” overtones in 300. (Not the point of your article, but you did bring it up.)

    I saw 300 once and I did not leave with that impression. I thought instead of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and of Rocky. I thought of the “hypermasculinity” of our WWE/WWF warriors in their lurid scripted, near-S&M role-playing of good vs evil… and what I take from all of this is a heightened realization of a warrior image. This hyper-image borders on caricature, but I think that the warrior image, especially in support of a clear good vs evil struggle, is what the teenage boy fanbase for 300 is responding to.

    I remember a lot of gay groups were upset about the portrayal of Xerxes as a makeup-heavy, jewelry-adorned, fey drag queen. I think they had a point, but I also think they doth quibble and protest too much. Xerxes represents the anti-thesis of the warrior image with which the Spartans were portrayed – and a threat of their emasculation as well. For teenage boys at least, it worked superbly in the movie.

    300 was fantastic entertainment, and a wonderful celebration of warrior mindset and warrior culture. Cartoonish? Yes, but faithful to its comic book roots.

  8. Apologies for an addon. I am also reminded of the Lord of the Rings movies by Peter Jackson. At the end of the first movie (Fellowship) Sam and Frodo express an incredible and complete platonic love for each other, in words and gaze and expression. I think for Kiwi Jackson, this was entirely appropriate and on purpose. I wonder if he had any idea how uncomfortable that made male viewers in the U.S. I heard so many friends comment on “faggot Frodo” and “faggot Sam” because of this discomfort with direct expression of nonsexual love.

    The power and importance of love, honor, valor and duty was expressed throughout the trilogy. In sum, I think this sense of “reading homo” into many things is a reflection on our culture, and isn’t intrinsic to what is on the screen itself.

  9. I didn’t see anything homoerotic with 300 or Fellowship.

    Xerxes was weird and exotic but that sort of goes with the image Miller created concerning Persia.

    I of course believed that the history was more heroic and dramatic than the movie. Course that wouldn’t then be a comic book based movie would it.

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