We're just about 31 years away from the great Stonewall riot, which set the tone for years of defiant gay insurgency. Stonewall was about defiance against the forces of repression, the forces of the state. So, where's this spirit of defiance today?

Here's a clue. In early June, we were able to read in our national newspapers that about 60 gay employees of the CIA were joined by a busload of Intelligence workers from the National Security Agency for a event designed to evince gay pride. Present were top officials, including George J. Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence. Addressing the gay spooks was Rep. Barney Frank, the noted gay rep from Massachusetts.

Taste the ironies. The gay spooks, albeit proud, were still unidentifiable, and then, returned to their tasks of planning the sabotage of the Cuban economy, the undermining of Libya, and other staples of the agency's daily fare. How would the Stonewall rioters of the late sixties have reacted to that? Wouldn't they have said that "liberation" should mean not only the assertion of a gay identity, but also the sloughing off of the sort of false consciousness that allows a person to work equably for a secret agency with the blood of millions on its hands?

Gays have always had an uneasy relationship with the state and with the authorities, for sound reasons. Down the decades, they've been hunted, entrapped, arrested, sentenced and persecuted. With increasing vigor and effect since Stonewall, they've fought back. But now, we have the repugnant spectacle of many prominent gays and gay groups oblivious to this long history.

Take the death penalty. There's no more glaring expression of the inequities of race and class than the manner in which the death penalty is operated in our society, yet many gay organizations -- most notably the richest and biggest of them all, the Human Rights Campaign -- are silent on capital punishment. They're mute as the state hauls off the poor and the black to die, and save their lungs for "hate crime" laws, for longer prison terms, for more repression by the state.

Listen to Richard Hymes, of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project: "Hate crimes legislation would remove the decision-making process regarding plea bargaining and reduced or dismissed sentences out of the judges' hands, because they set a benchmark of punishment for each offense which cannot be pleaded, bargained away or dismissed." In other words, the zeal to deal with anti-gay violence now leads to advocacy of laws which threaten justice, due process and civil liberties.

Listen to how Winnie Stachelberg, of the Human Rights Campaign, borrows from the hysterical idiom of the Cold War when she proclaims that "in our multicultural nation, hate crimes are a form of domestic terrorism and act as atomic bombs to national unity." And just as civil liberties and constitutional protections were trashed in the name of the crusade against Communism, the "hate crime" legislators now are installing thought crimes in the American penal code.

This week, the U.S. Senate is once again debating a hate crime law. The likelihood is that the whole stupid folly will die in committee, but such is not the case in New York state, now certain to pass hate crime legislation that could add up to 10 years to a felony conviction if "hate" is proven. How would those Stonewall demonstrators have felt about the spectacle in Albany, where gay groups across the state are cheering on Gov. Pataki, the man who reintroduced the death penalty?

The murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., gave a huge push to the "hate crimes" lobby. But it also gave gay opponents of this same lobby a dramatic opportunity to make their case. Bill Dobbs and Michael Petrelis of Queerwatch opened up a telling campaign that allowed the defense attorneys for Henderson and McKinney, Shepard's killers, to win some breathing room and to save their clients from Death Row.

"The criminal laws cover every kind of victim," Dobbs points out, "no matter how beloved or reviled, from the white-haired grandmother that garners sympathy from all to the seediest low-life that many might say 'deserved it' -- with gradations for intent. The real challenge is to get the law applied in such a fashion as to give justice. Twisting the law out of shape is not a cure for cases that the criminal justice system will not reckon with in an even-handed manner.

The politicians love hate crime bills because they let them off the hook so easily. Why not go after something that would actually give some gays in Wyoming, for example, some rights -- some anti-discrimination legislation? How many cower in fear that they will lose their jobs or housing as same-sexers? In 2000, 31 years after Stonewall, there is still no state law in New York that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

The bitter truth is that liberals, progressive and leftists (to the extent any or all of these groups or even individuals currently exist) have been co-opted into a traditional conservative response to crime -- law and order. The reflexive answer to anti-gay violence is tougher laws. So, where is the radical, or even progressive, analysis? Collective amnesia has wiped out a critique of the criminal justice system.

Years ago, a great criminal court judge in Detroit -- Justin Ravitz -- explained the criminal justice system as America's "only working railroad." And now, many gays are toiling to make sure that the railroad runs on time, even on overtime. About half the states now have hate crime laws that include language on sexual bias. Not a word in any of those laws in any of those states will stop a gay person from being attacked, not a word will reduce discrimination in our society, not a word will erode the repression against which those Stonewallers fought 31 years ago.

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.