The importance of being dishonest, hateful moments in Washington, D.C., metaphysics in a bottle. CRIME AND PREJUDICE

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Based on knowledge and belief and a certain amount of off-the-record interviewing, we would aver that the Bush Administration is less ecstatic about the new hate-crimes law than it pretends to be. In case you hadn't noticed, the President and his men have been laboriously pantomiming enthusiasm for this curious legislation. At the April 23 signing ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building, our kindly Prexy explained that he was hot for the law because ''bigotry and hate . . . still exist in this country . . . And that's why I'm signing into law today a measure to require the Attorney General to collect as much information as we can on crimes motivated by religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation -- the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.'' In the warm glow of bipartisan schmaltz in Room 450, nobody rose to ask why, if it was such a great idea, the Attorney General wasn't already collecting this information (which the President could simply have ordered him to do). Even aside from its facial redundancy, the legislation seems bizarre. It sailed through both houses this year on a tide of horrible examples: blacks assaulted in white neighborhoods, gays beaten up by skinheads, swastikas spray-painted on synagogue walls. But, of course, we already have laws against assault and vandalism. What is accomplished by passing another law that defines no new crimes and instead merely focuses on the possibility that the criminal is prejudiced toward the victim? Why would the civil-rights establishment wish to satirize itself by inferentially demanding nondiscriminatory behavior from America's sociopaths? Furthermore, how will we ascertain the motives of the bullies and vandals? A year ago the Department of Justice sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee indicating that DOJ generally supported the hate-crimes bill but worried that it could be hard to figure out which crimes were in fact hate- driven. Wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas M. Boyd: ''Particularly when a common crime is committed by a member of one racial or ethnic group against a member of another such group, it will be difficult to apply objective criteria to determine reliably whether the crime was motivated by race, ethnicity, personal animosity, or financial gain.'' With the party line now requiring support of the law, Boyd says this problem has been resolved -- but has trouble explaining why his original objection is now inapplicable. There are reasons for believing the problem is with us yet. Viewing the whole exercise as a civil-rights morality play, Congress kept pretending that the paradigm it had in mind was white assaults on blacks -- on, say, the infamous Bensonhurst model. In fact, however, the problem of interracial violence in the country today is overwhelmingly one of black assaults on whites. DOJ's own data for 1987 (the latest year for which figures are available) indicate that 87,029 blacks were violently attacked by whites, while 786,660 whites were violently attacked by blacks. Is it rational to suppose that the former group of attacks were all expressions of bias while the latter were benignly ''race neutral''? Is it rational to care all that much about the answer? Our own strong sense is that among both blacks and whites, there is much more concern about the objective behavior than about the subjective attitudes of criminals. Among blacks, especially, it is laughable if not cryable to suppose that the threat of violent crime should be approached primarily as a civil-rights issue. The DOJ data tell us that 82% of the violent crimes against blacks are committed by other blacks. It is not too hard to figure out why the Bush Administration has been cuddling up to the hate-crimes act. Determined to win more black support for the Republican Party, the Bushies like the act precisely because it can be loosely identified as a civil-rights measure, and they need to find one they can support. Rationally or otherwise.