Let's start in North Side Chicago at the Shan Restaurant, a Pakistani bistro where South Asians like to hang out, among them Ifti Nasim, a 53-year-old Pakistani writer and radical who's also a leading light of Muslim gays, many of them mustered in the international gay Muslim organization Al-Fatiha. Nasim was sitting in the Shan on the night of March 12 when a man at the table called Salman Aftab began verbally hassling him for being "too visible" in his sexual orientation and an "embarrassment" to South Asians. Nasim apparently likes heavy jewelry and presented himself in drag on the cover of his latest book of poems.

Nasim says Aftab told him, "I'm going to stab you up the ass to tell God I'm getting rid of at least one sinner! I want to clean up the planet after your type!" Then, on Nasim's account, Aftab got a knife from the kitchen, yelled out "gandoo," meaning "faggot bottom," declared an Islamic "jihad" against Nasim and gay Muslims and lurched toward the poet. At which point two people in the restaurant restrained Aftab, and Nasim dialed 911.

The first Chicago cops on the scene reportedly told Nasim it looked to them like "an ethnic problem" and declined to take Nasim's complaint. Then police Sgt. Mary Boyle arrived and ordered Aftab to be arrested, charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor.

What bears upon the title of this column is that the Chicago police declined Nasim's request that they hit Aftab with a hate-crimes charge, to the great fury not only of many Chicago gays but of the local chapter of the ACLU. The Al-Fatiha Foundation has been urging gays across the United States to call Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine to demand that hate-crimes charges be filed against Aftab on the grounds that the assault was motivated by Nasim's sexual orientation and ethnicity. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network has made the same call, and has prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page, single-spaced letter to State's Attorney Devine detailing why she feels he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.

Now, CABN has done good work in Chicago on such issues as killings and torture by Chicago's cops. When I phoned the group to ask for Sumner's letter, CABN co-founder Andy Thayer told me he was well aware of my opposition to hate-crimes laws and indeed agreed that "the promotion of hate-crimes legislation has generally been a distraction from legal inequalities faced by lesbians and gays"; also that the "Democratic Party in particular has very cynically promoted hate-crimes legislation while conveniently ignoring the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that arguably contributed to the climate requiring hate-crimes laws." After voicing these sentiments, Thayer said he wants Aftab charged with a hate crime because the law is on the Illinois books (as are a lot of unjust laws) and it is a useful way to pressure Devine, who grandstands on his support for such laws.

But the more he talked, eloquently, about astounding cases of police killing (LaTanya Haggerty, shot to death) and police assault (Jeremiah Mearday, face beaten to a pulp) in which the Chicago cops had escaped charges, the more I thought he was making my case for me. Why fool with such laws, with their importing of thought crimes into the statute book, when the issues at hand concern murder, torture or, in Nasim's case, assault? Why is the ACLU's Sumner spending hours on a three-page letter urging hate-crimes charges against Aftab when there are such urgent matters of everyday business as men sitting on death row, put there by confessions elicited by torture?

And finally, why is Al-Fatiha wasting time on hate-crimes issues in Chicago when their Muslim comrades round the world are confronted by forces of intolerance even grimmer than Mayor Daley's Blue Knights? Seven Islamic nations prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality. But on the issue of the death penalty Al-Fatiha's founder and director, Faisal Alam, wrote earlier this year to Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch (the gay justice group that opposes the death penalty and hate-crimes laws) in mealy-mouthed terms, to the effect that "Al-Fatiha continues to maintain a level of discretion when it comes to dealing with what we perceive as 'political matters.'… Al-Fatiha maintains itself as a 'religious organization.'… So this means that we have actively taken a stance NOT to directly get involved with such situations."

Prosecutors are finding that hate-crimes charges sometimes have their uses. Take the case of James Cosner, 31-year-old self-described "revolutionary freedom fighter." On March 9 he took a hammer to a statue of Christopher Columbus in the Santa Cruz, California, city hall, severely damaging the statue while denouncing Columbus as a perpetrator of genocide. The statue is worth $100,000, according to a deputy DA in Santa Cruz.

Cosner is now being charged with vandalism. If convicted he could get up to three years in prison, but the prosecutor has added a hate-crimes enhancement–which could add another three years–from California's penal code.

So here's a fellow who did something that's a crime, with enough destruction to draw a felony charge. But suddenly that's not enough. Now we're into the issue of his motive, namely the avenging of Columbus's destruction of the Arawaks. In other words, he could get an extra three years because of his ideology, not because he made a mess of city property.

Earlier this year Oregon State Senator Gary George, a hazelnut farmer, introduced a bill making it a hate crime to smash a Starbucks window or sabotage a timber company. George told the press his real target was political correctness on hate crimes. "Even the Scriptures tell you not to judge a person's thoughts but their actions." His bill calls for an additional five years in prison for an offender whose crime is motivated by "a hatred of people who subscribe to a set of political beliefs that support capitalism." The bill was intended more to make a political point than as serious legislation. But I could see it romping through the Oregon legislature. This hate-crimes binge is playing with fire.