How do societies define crimes?

What should be legal? What should be illegal?

Every society has to address wrongdoing. What’s defined as wrongdoing and what kinds excite the most attention – sometimes rising to irrational blood lust – varies widely over time and place.

On a historical scale, it was not that long ago that slavery was not only legal but many otherwise decent people thought it was right and the way God had ordained it. Even in non-slave states where slavery had been eliminated, the “property” rights of Southern slave owners were legally protected by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Nevertheless many American communities after emancipation made interracial marriages illegal and maintained a Constitutionally protected rigid system of segregation.

In much more recent times, homosexual acts were not only abhorred but illegal as well and punishable with prison sentences. Who would have thought that gay marriage would one day be legal.

The use of marijuana, until very recently a criminal act is now made legal in a number of states and localities for not only medicinal uses but for recreation as well.

There are many laws in other societies whose severity most Americans would be shocked at. For instance, insulting the Prophet or Islam in certain Moslem countries would bring a penalty of death. Yet most citizens there would think it right and proper.

So what are we to make of the inconsistency of human beings to define what should and should not be criminal?

Today in the U.S. no crime is regarded with more outrage than sex offenses involving minors. But does that outrage — while some may feel it cathartic or self-righteous to indulge — lead to grave injustices? Look at the evidence and one can see trials and convictions of people for crimes they didn’t commit, or maybe never happened at all. Or the frequent lack of proportionality between harm caused and the punishment meted out. Millions are now affected by what one lawyer calls the totalitarian regime the U.S. has created for offenders since the 1990s – lifetime parole, pre-emptive incarceration, Apartheid-esque residency restrictions, the state seizing children away from their parents, and tacitly supporting murderous vigilantes.

Those touched by the “sex-offender system” that has emerged in the U.S. since the 1980s should consider what is happening now with terrible waves of cynically cultivated hatred – from the European witch-hunting to the wave of lynchings in 19th and 20th century America to the Europe’s murderous antisemitism or the purges of dissidents and sexual minorities of the U.S. McCarthy era.

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